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Fans appreciate the action.

The eighth edition of the Women's World Cup is easily the most important in history, coming hot on the heels in a huge surge in both popularity and exposure of the female game.

Never before has there been such a wealth of talent or as many title contenders and, perhaps, never before has women's football had such a platform.

The four-week competition, which kicked off in the French capital of Paris last Friday, offers an opportunity to change attitudes, to push the drive for equality farther forward.

Established in 1991, initially as the 'FIFA World Championship for Women's Football for the M&M's Cup' (what a mouthful that is), only after the tournament in China did FIFA, the sport's governing body, quell their unease and allow for it to be called a World Cup.

Despite the relative infancy compared to the men's version -- first hosted in 1930 in Uruguay -- there is a sense that France 2019 could be a turning point. Twenty years after the record-breaking 1999 Women's World Cup which propelled the women's game into wider consciousness, the next month provides an opportunity to not only build on those foundations but to surpass the achievements of the 1999 ground-breakers.

Global stars will emerge over the course of the 52 games as a bigger audience than ever tune in to watch more countries than ever compete for the prestigious prize.

The capacity of the stadiums in France means that the record attendance of 90,185 set on that sweltering Californian afternoon in the summer of 1999 -- still a record for a female sporting event -- will not be eclipsed, but the television figures for France 2019 are expected to put the 2015 Women's World Cup, which attracted a global TV audience of 750 million, in the shade.

In April, FIFA said ticket sales were 'smashing records.' The opening match in the Parc de Princes and the semi-finals and finals at the Stade de Lyon were sold out within 48 hours of going on sale.

Such is the focus on the tournament, it leaves former players wishing they could play again. For those who grew up in a world where young girls struggled to find teams, the rate of the progress made in recent years has come as a surprise.

Kelly Smith is regarded as the finest female footballer to have played for England, making 117 appearances from 1995 to 2014. "It's been an eye opener, just the attention that's now on women's football," said Smith.

"Certain nations are investing more resources. FIFA has opened up the tournament to 24 teams, so more nations are getting to experience tournament football.

"When I was playing, there were only two or three teams who could potentially win a World Cup. Now you could name six to eight teams who could potentially do something special at this tournament and it just makes it more competitive, it makes it better for viewers to watch.

"And there are just so many cool stories out there of the women. There are a lot of social media campaigns promoting the players and teams. There's a lot more exposure and visibility now, which just didn't happen when I was playing."

The rise of women's football is a result of a myriad reasons, the biggest arguably being societal change (this will be the first tournament since the #MeToo movement), and now sponsors and FIFA are adding their voices.

Last year, FIFA announced a five-pronged global strategy to grow the game, one being to ensure all 211 members have comprehensive women's plans in place by 2022.

The governing body has said it wants women's participation to double to 60 million worldwide by 2026, and that the women's game offers vast untapped opportunities, but there is continued criticism of FIFA over the prize money on offer at this tournament.

Raised from $15 million in 2015 to $30 million, the overall prize fund has doubled since 2015, but for the 2018 men's World Cup it was $400 million, with winners France taking home $38 million.

As for who is going to win the tournament, many predict this will be the most competitive Women's World Cup ever.

The United States are ranked first in the world and have a formidable array of attackers who should have no trouble scoring: Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath and Lloyd, among others. But defence could be a weakness, and the US have sometimes struggled in the past against teams that bunker down and don't allow them to work their offensive magic.

Germany look poised to make a deep run in the tournament, led by midfielder Dzsenifer Marozsaan and forward Alexandra Popp. But coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg was put in charge only late last year, and the team's prospects are still coming into focus.

England have a number of strong players, including attackers Fran Kirby, Nikita Parris and defensive star Lucy Bronze. Coached by former England player Phil Neville, the Lionesses are a good bet to be among the last four teams standing.

As for Brazil, superstar Marta suffered a thigh injury two weeks ago that might hamper the team's fortunes.

Finally, expectations for France are high as the host country and after its men's team won last summer's World Cup. Watch out for midfielder Amandine Henry and forwards Eugenie Le Sommer and Delphine Cascarino, who have already made their mark in the tournament's opening 4-0 thrashing of South Korea.

Who am I going to pick? Well, the 'Kristian Curse' is famous in this newspaper, so I'm certainly not going for England. Last summer I tossed a coin between France and Germany and went for the Germans, and we all saw how that turned out.

I won't make that mistake again. France it is.

[c] Copyright 2019

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Publication:Gulf Weekly
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Jun 13, 2019
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