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Women' s football basks in spotlight as France launch World Cup

France captain Amandine Henry (C) with teammates at a training session on Thursday as they prepared for their World Cup opener against South Korea
France captain Amandine Henry (C) with teammates at a training session on Thursday as they prepared for their World Cup opener against South Korea France captain Amandine Henry (C) with teammates at a training session on Thursday as they prepared for their World Cup opener against South Korea AFP
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Paris (AFP)

The pressure is on France to live up to their status as one of the favourites as the host nation kick off their World Cup on Friday with the spotlight shining on women's football as never before.

It's the biggest women's World Cup ever with nearly one million tickets sold for a global tournament in which competition is so stiff that several teams are genuine contenders for the title.

The opening game at the month-long tournament, between the hosts and South Korea, is a sell-out in Paris, setting off an "explosion" of women's football, according to FIFA president Gianni Infantino.

"We have a big event, we have 1 billion viewers," he told FIFA's Congress in Parison Thursday " We will be proud of that."

Organisers say 950,000 tickets have been sold and may have miscalculated when they chose to stage a large proportion of the matches in stadiums with a capacity of 25,000 or less.

"We did not always choose big grounds because we didn't want any empty stadiums," Noel Le Graet, the president of the French Football Federation, told AFP.

"I was a bit scared about the Parc des Princes, but the opening match sold out in five minutes."

The rising interest in France, and in much of western Europe, follows the improved quality of many of the teams from traditional football powers.

This time, contenders to lift the trophy in Lyon on July 7 are plentiful.

The French, captained by Lyon star Amandine Henry, will get the chance to showcase their credentials when they run out before 47,000 fans at the Parc des Princes to face the South Koreans at 1900 GMT in the first match in Group A, which also contains Norway and Nigeria.

Les Bleues are ranked fourth in the world and are seen as the second favourites after the holders, the United States.

The country is home to Europe's leading club side, with Lyon last month winning a fourth consecutive Champions League, but the national team lost in the quarter-finals of the last World Cup, the last European Championship and the 2016 Olympics.

Le Graet, has set the home team the target of going all the way to the final.

"That is what he said and that is what I am paid to do. If I don't fulfil that objective I will have to stand aside," coach Corinne Diacre told sports daily L'Equipe.

"We would have been disappointed if the objective was smaller. It proves that he has confidence in us. It means we are capable of doing it," added Diacre, a former French international who previously coached Clermont in the men's second division.

- USA seek fourth title -

France's women are dreaming of matching the men, who are the reigning world champions and also won the World Cup as hosts in 1998.

"I am from that 1998 generation. We want to experience the same emotions," said Henry, one of seven Lyon players in the French squad.

South Korea lost 3-0 to France in the last 16 at the 2015 World Cup in Canada and would love to reach the knockout phase again. Their star player is the midfielder Ji So-yun of Chelsea.

"We need to build experience. We will try to win the game but we will have to accept the result whatever happens," their coach, Yoon Deok-yeo, said modestly.

It will be an intriguing opening game for the 24-team tournament, which will be played in nine cities across the country, with the semi-finals and final -- all sell-outs -- being played at the 58,000-seat home of Lyon.

Much has been made of the fact that Lyon's Norwegian striker, Ada Hegerberg, will not be here.

The inaugural women's Ballon d'Or winner, who scored a hat-trick for her club in last month's Champions League final, is at odds with her national federation and will be missed.

Meanwhile, the United States aim to lift the trophy for the fourth time.

They have made headlines in the run-up to the finals due to a legal dispute with their federation as they fight for equal pay.

For while their male counterparts remain also-rans internationally, the popularity of the US has been the financial motor that has driven the women's game.

Their squad in France includes superstars like Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan. They begin their campaign against unfancied Thailand in Reims, in Champagne country, next Tuesday.

Among the other contenders are England, who begin their bid against old rivals Scotland in Nice on Sunday.

Germany are also serious contenders and they open their campaign on Saturday against China in Rennes in Group B. Spain play South Africa later in Le Havre in the same group before Norway and Nigeria clash in Reims.

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