If it’s top-notch football and guaranteed excitement you’re after, Finland is the place to be from Sunday onwards, as the Scandinavians host the UEFA Women’s EURO 2009. With a wider range of nations than ever before entertaining realistic hopes of the trophy, and the starting field expanded to 12 for the first time, the tournament promises to be more open than ever before. The task for all the hopefuls will be wrest the crown from Germany’s grasp - a tall order given that the world champions have won the last four European showdowns.
For all the strength and ambition of the candidates aiming to succeed the current holders, the Germans enter the contest in confident mood. A process of rejuvenation and rebuilding is currently underway, but the remaining proven quality in the Germany team is certainly sufficient for the status of joint-favourites. "We have a very straightforward goal: we aim to be champions of Europe," declares coach Silvia Neid, throwing down the gauntlet right from the start. "But we don’t have a subscription to the trophy."
The era in which Germany appeared unassailable at the top of the European game appears to be over. Other nations have unquestionably caught up in many areas, but Neid and her troops remain the team to beat. Keeper Nadine Angerer, defensive organiser Ariane Hingst and striker Birgit Prinz all rate as world-class members of a strong squad. "I think we have the players," Neid reflects. "We have a very good blend of youth and experience."
However, it is a given that Germany’s priority target is the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2011™, where they will be playing on home soil. The tournament in Finland is more of a pulse check on the progress and form of the successors to the previous Golden Generation. Those in the know feel the squad is stronger than at the Beijing Olympic Football Tournament in 2008, where the Germans took the bronze medal, but still a long way off their former near-invincibility. The biggest question to be resolved is whether the likes of Fatmire Bajmaraj, Celia Okoyino da Mbabi and Kim Kulig are yet ready to inherit the mantle slowly but surely being relinquished by Prinz and Co .
Many observers feel Sweden pose the biggest threat to Germany’s continental supremacy. The former giants from Scandinavia won the prestigious Algarve Cup in early spring, and appear well placed to recapture the glories of years past. Until a few days ago, they had gone the whole year undefeated. However, the Swedes contrived to lose their EURO dress rehearsal 1-0 to Norway, who at a stroke underscored their own ambitions regarding the European title. The first game in Group B sees the Norwegians take on the Germans, a genuine litmus test for both, and a likely pointer to how the tournament will later unfold.
England have made huge strides of late and now rate as one of the leading sides in Europe. Hope Powell’s squad, six of whom earn a living from the game in the US professional league, are considered likely to launch a first serious assault on the European trophy, up to now won only by the Germans (six times), Norway (twice) and the Swedes (once). As for Denmark and France, both capable of breathtaking highs and excruciating lows, form on the day will decide, and upsets can never be ruled out.
The Netherlands, Ukraine, Iceland, Russia and hosts Finland are all keen to prove they have closed the previously yawning gap to the top of the European game, while the Italians are hoping for a reprise of the good old days of the 90s, when they twice made the European final. The South Europeans will certainly not be lacking confidence after their U-19 team won their continental championship last year.
Player in focus
The UEFA Women’s EURO 2009 could be Isabell Herlovsen’s big chance. Previously burdened by a Wunderkind tag, the Norway star is now 21 and utterly determined to make her mark on the world footballing stage. The striker it was who scored the goal in Norway’s surprise but morale-boosting 1-0 victory over Sweden.
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