All eyes in the world of women's football are currently on Great Britain, where 12 senior teams are doing battle for Olympic gold, silver and bronze. The focus for Anouschka Bernhard is, however, preparing her Germany team for this year's FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in Azerbaijan.
“Now we've completed last season’s schedule, I can totally concentrate on the World Cup,” Bernhard exclusively told FIFA.com. “The only work left to do is preparing for the World Cup, so it's taking up a lot of space in my head. That also means tension and anticipation levels are increasing accordingly."
The 41-year-old took over her current charges in March 2011, registering her greatest coaching success to date in June this year with victory at the UEFA Women's U-17 Championship. Of course, continental glory means expectations are now running higher than ever.
“European girls and women's football is very highly regarded around the world," said Bernhard. "As the reigning European champions, you go to a World Cup as one of the favourites. We're certainly among a group for whom a place in the semi-finals doesn't rate as improbable."
The former world-class player is not yet thinking anywhere near as far ahead as the last four, however, due to an exceptionally strong starting field. As she herself stated, any team capable of qualifying for the finals has already fought off stiff competition on their own continent and boasts quality aplenty.
Bernhard warned: “It's not anything we can take for granted, along the lines of, 'Oh, the European champions will definitely make the semi-finals.’ We know we face very intense and tight matches. We'll try and prepare ourselves well and give a good account of ourselves at this World Cup.
“We can't say in advance what that will bring us, but it's obvious we're not going to Baku as European champions with the intention of playing our three matches and saying we've been to Azerbaijan. We want to go as far as we can. Our initial target is the quarter-finals, and then we'll take each game as it comes."
As at every tournament, only two teams can make the final, and it is a tough road on the way there. Germany face Ghana, Uruguay and China PR in their group. “I'd be lying if I said I already know everything there is to know about our opponents,” Bernhard said with a smile. “At the moment, we're busy organising video material for each of our opponents.
“I'd say China will be very strong. Reigning U-17 world champions Korea Republic aren't at the finals, because they couldn't get past China in qualifying. African teams are fundamentally hard to play. They're very athletic and well-trained, technically good and completely unorthodox tactically. Uruguay play just like their men, and that doesn't suit us so much. That’ll be another difficult match.”
Passing on experience
Bernhard’s hopes rest on the powerful team spirit within her squad, which she feels was a major contribution to winning the European crown: “The hallmark of this team is a real sense of ‘we’ in the squad. They've completely understood they can achieve a lot by working as a team."
The schedule up until the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup includes three preparatory seminars, in which Bernhard will help her players realise what it means to play at a global tournament. As a FIFA Women's World Cup™ runner-up in 1995, it is a feeling she is perfectly qualified to communicate.
“My assistant Britta Carlson and I have a wealth of experience," she said, underlining the benefits of a coach having previously been a successful player. "We understand what it means to play at a World Cup, although we both did it much later than our players, not as juniors but as grown women, so it's definitely a bit different. But it means we can pass on many valuable hints about how women's football works.
“In particular, I'm looking forward to our first match, to the setting and all the commotion when the players come out of the tunnel and you hear the national anthems. The first World Cup match is certainly a bit special."
Nor does Bernhard have long to wait, as the eagerly-awaited tournament kicks off in just under two months' time.