It is finally here. The most anticipated Women’s World Cup in history is just days away and there is every chance it will be the best one too.
Four years ago, more than 750 million people around the world watched the 2015 edition in Canada on television. Audiences for this tournament, starting on Friday when France take on South Korea at the Parc des Princes in Paris, are expected to dwarf that total. Over 750,000 tickets have been sold and attendances are expected to top a million.
The women’s game is a bigger beast these days. Investment is at its highest, sponsorship floods in, and, most importantly, as a result of that financial support, the quality on the pitch is the best it has ever been.
And there is more to come. Players across the globe are only just starting to reap the rewards of professionalism. The kids that will come through in five, 10, 15 years time will be technically better, physically fitter and more complete players than those who came before them.
All this change and growth has made it difficult to pinpoint which of the 24 teams will lift the trophy on 7 July in Lyon. In previous tournaments the United States, Japan and Germany have ruled supreme – with six of seven titles between them – but now the pack are closing in.
The US remain favourites despite having been in transition since Carli Lloyd’s 13-minute hat-trick put them on course for a 5-2 victory over Japan in the final four years ago. The 2016 Rio Olympics saw the team fall short in a quarter-final shootout against Sweden. A year of experimentation – in style, formation and lineup – ensued.
There were grumblings about the tinkering but this is a team of winners. Serial winners. And in 2018 Jill Ellis’s team hit their stride. Alex Morgan scored 13 goals in 14 games and the US went the calendar year undefeated – a 1-1 draw against Australia in the friendly Tournament of Nations the only time they failed to win.
Their start to 2019 has been rockier. A shock 3-1 defeat in France and consecutive 2-2 draws against Japan and England at the SheBelieves Cup were a warning about the increasing threat to their crown. But this is a team experienced at tournament preparation – a squad packed with experience heads to France with the fear-factor firmly on their side. So much confidence surrounds the team that the lion’s share of tickets sold so far have been to fans in the States.
Perhaps the biggest threat to their hopes of title retention are France. The ruthlessness with which they beat the world champions in January hinted at a side ready to cast off the cloak of underachievement that has shrouded campaigns in recent years.
England are perhaps the best of the rest. How they handle the expectations will be important. Anything less than a semi-final berth is likely to be seen as a disappointment. That is new territory for this team.
Standing in their way is a familiar foe. The Lionesses meet Scotland in their Group D opener in a rerun of their first group game at Euro 2017. Two years ago England flattened their rivals with a 6-0 win but the Scots travelling to France are a much changed force.
Meanwhile, the 2015 runners-up Japan will be transformed from the experimental side that was beaten 3-0 by England at SheBelieves Cup this spring and Germany, having underwhelmed of late, seem to be on their way back at just the right time under Martina Voss-Tecklenburg.
An incredible run to a maiden European Championship title has prompted a women’s football revolution in the Netherlands, though the success of the national team is yet to really filter into the domestic game.