"It's going to be a three-week party – a party on a scale possibly never seen before at a U-17 World Cup!" Judging by the sheer enthusiasm of the host nation's German coach Sissy Raith, the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup Azerbaijan 2012 is shaping up to be an unmissable event. It certainly has a lot to live up to after the success of the two most recent editions, but the sparkling line-up for this year's tournament – due to unfold between 22 September and 13 October – suggests that it could indeed be set to reach new heights.
With Germany, USA, Japan, Korea DPR, Brazil and Nigeria among the sides in contention, the most formidable powers in women's football will be taking part – and competing for the ultimate prize. The tournament will hardly be short of burgeoning talents either, and fans can look forward to witnessing the likes of exciting Japanese midfielder Yui Narumiya, German forward Sara Dabritz and Brazilian schemer Andressa up close. Fearsome goal machines such as Summer Green of the United States, Uruguay's Yamila Badell and Korea DPR's Ri Un-Sim will likewise be aiming to set the competition alight.
As it happens, the only major absentee in Azerbaijan will be Korea Republic, the reigning champions having only managed to finish fourth in their Asian qualifying campaign. The Taeguk Ladies will therefore be unable to defend their title, increasing the chances of a new name on the trophy. Their North Korean neighbours are the only previous winners in the field, in fact, having claimed victory at the inaugural edition in New Zealand four years ago.
As those previous tournaments suggest, Asian sides have held a stranglehold on the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup so far. That was amply demonstrated at Trinidad & Tobago 2010, when all three contenders from the Far East won their way through to the semi-finals, prompting FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter to hail the strength of women's football in the region. "It's good news for Asia, but frankly it's not a surprise," he said at the time. "When FIFA began taking an interest in women's football in the 1980s, the countries in Eastern Asia were already pioneers in the discipline. Women's football has deep roots in the region."
This time around, it will be Japan, Korea DPR and China PR looking to continue the tradition, and all three figure among the favourites. As Asian champions, the Little Nadeshiko can be particularly ambitious as they tackle their third finals campaign, but the team's coach Hiroshi Yoshida is urging caution all the same. "We're just hoping for six matches and to reach the final," he said. "Our goal is to win, but in this type of competition – especially the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup – you can't predict anything."
The United States and Germany are likely to mount serious challenges as well, with both nations having reached the final of the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup Japan 2012 just over a week ago, the Stars and Stripes ultimately emerging victorious. They will go into the tournament desperate to make an impression after failing to qualify two years ago, while Anouschka Bernhard's Germany team have a disappointment of their own to put behind them. The European heavyweights rattled in no fewer than 22 goals during the group stage two years ago, only to suffer a 1-0 loss to Korea DPR in the quarter-finals.
Baptism of fire
Among the other hopefuls on show, Brazil will be serious contenders with their alluring Jogo Bonito, as will a France side spurred on by gifted playmaker Sandie Toletti. Nigeria will also be keen to have their say and boast a squad featuring five players (Sarah Nnodim, Victoria Aidelomon, Oluchi Ofoegbu, Halimatu Ayinde and Ebere Okoye) who were also involved two years ago. Meanwhile, Canada, Colombia, Mexico, New Zealand and Ghana all have previous experience of the tournament and will be aiming to reach the semi-finals for the first time. In particular, Ghana will be bolstered by the presence of defender Ellen Coleman, a veritable veteran at this level who will be making her third trip to a FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup.
For their part, newcomers Gambia, Uruguay, China PR and hosts Azerbaijan will be focused on gaining experience in Odlar Yurdu (the Land of Fire) and springing a few upsets. "We'll need a small miracle to come out on top, but in football there are always miracles," explained the home side's coach, Raith. "We'll see what happens."