With more professionals, more supporters, more publicity (and more Chelsea players) than ever, the women’s game is gearing up for a watershed World Cup in France.
From today (7 June to 7 July), the eighth FIFA Women’s World Cup will be quite possibly the biggest all-female sporting event to be contested.
The expanded 24-team tournament made major strides four years ago in Canada, but the prospect of prime-time viewing in Europe and even more competition – with the defending champions USA, Germany, England and the hosts among the main contenders – sets this edition on course to do more than consolidate on that success.
Ready for the biggest international test of their careers, a total of 11 Chelsea players are across the Channel with six different countries, making us the best-represented English club. Four of those Blues are making their debut in the tournament, as is our new signing Guro Reiten who becomes a Chelsea player after the World Cup, plus there is departing goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl who has just left us and is off to her fifth World Cup.
The first out onto the pitch today (Friday) will be our experienced playmaker Ji So-Yun, South Korea’s all-time top goalscorer, whose team are hoping to improve on their last-16 appearance in 2015. They take on France, a repeat of that knockout tie, in what is the curtain-raiser for this tournament at the Parc des Princes in Paris.
Plenty more Chelsea players begin their campaign the following day in Reims, the other fixture in the first round of a highly competitive group. Norway captain Maren Mjelde, Maria Thorisdottir plus Reiten (who will officially sign for the Blues from LSK Kvinner next month) face the African champions Nigeria.
The trio, all expected to play a key role for the 1995 winners, go head-to-head with Ji in the final fixture of Group A, though both South Korea and Norway stand a good chance of already having progressed by then, with even the four third-placed teams with the most points from the six groups joining the top two in the knockout phase.
By far the biggest Blues contingent is in Group D, featuring Phil Neville’s England side and World Cup newcomers Scotland. Our skipper Karen Carney, at her eighth major tournament, and keeper Carly Telford are veterans of the squad, while Fran Kirby and Millie Bright are part of the core of a glittering new generation.
The auld enemies renew their rivalry once again on Sunday in the opening match of their campaign in Nice. The Scots will be desperate to leave the French Riviera with a better scoreline than their 6-0 defeat to England at the start of Euro 2017, in which Kirby came up with the vital moves, and they look well-placed to do so.
Now with some summer tournament experience under their belts, Shelley Kerr’s Tartan Army are hoping to cause an upset or two on the world stage, and Chelsea Player of the Year Erin Cuthbert could be right at the centre, having scored 13 goals in all competitions last season.
England go into the World Cup as one of the clear-cut favourites. The Lionesses have made it to the quarter-finals on four occasions without ever reaching a final, and slipped to an agonising semi-final defeat to Japan in 2015, but the success of the Women’s Super League has done wonders for their confidence.
The SheBelieves Cup winners have the chance to avenge that extra-time heartbreak when they play Japan in their last group game, a fixture that some have predicted could decide the top spot in Group D, at the same time as Scotland will be aiming to pip Latin American outsiders Argentina to qualification at the Parc des Princes.
The next group features Ali Riley, who helped New Zealand deliver England a blow in their final warm-up on Saturday. She is likely to play every minute for the Football Ferns, as they seek their first victory at a World Cup on their fifth appearance. They have meetings with European champions the Netherlands plus Canada and Cameron.
Sweden, meanwhile, have defensive colleagues for club and country Magdalena Eriksson and Jonna Andersson (plus ex-Blue Lindahl) and are drawn with their perennial opponents and tournament favourites USA, but will first have to contend with Chile and Thailand in what has been painted as a group of two halves.
The Scandinavians, boasting an excellent tournament record since the early 2000s, have another shot at the Stars and Stripes, whom they knocked out at the 2016 Olympic Games, in Le Havre on 20 June, for the last game of the group stage and a convincing bet for one of most competitive.
The USA, with former Blues winger Crystal Dunn in their ranks, touch down at the tournament as the No.1 ranked team and most-fancied side, as they have been at almost every World Cup for well over two decades. They are looking to win a record fourth world title after becoming the first nation to win three in 2015.
A word of warning for Jill Ellis’s superstars, as if they needed one, is that the last three World Cups have been won by different countries. In 2007, it was Germany, who suffered a rare blip at the Euros, before dark horses Japan proved that anything is possible in 2011, and then pushed the USA all the way four years ago.
If another fresh set of players are to get their hands on the trophy, pundits look no further than the hosts France, who have been priming themselves for this competition for a couple of years and have a talented team at their disposal, but Les Bleues have failed to make it further than the last-eight in any recent championships.
The semi-finals and the final will be played at Parc Olympique Lyonnais, finishing exactly a month after the tournament starts on Sunday, 7 July. It bodes well for France, with their core based at Lyon, but it is also a good omen for the Chelsea players, who performed so well in the city in the Champions League semi-finals.
Stay with us for more match coverage here from around France. Meanwhile, the BBC will broadcast the tournament in the UK.
France versus South Korea kicks off at 8pm UK time.