The inaugural FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup may be over a year-and-a-half away, but already the football world has embraced its newest tournament.
Nowhere, predictably, has that embrace been warmer than in New Zealand, where the tournament hosts are diligently piecing together their plans for a competition that looks sure to set the highest of standards for its future successors. That said, enthusiasm for the tournament, which LOC Chairman Graham Seatter has vowed will be "an unforgettable festival of football", extends far beyond its Kiwi hosts.
In Europe, for example, no fewer than 40 associations - many
more than were originally expected - have entered a team into the
first-ever UEFA European Women's U-17 Championship, the draw
for which took place last Monday. That tournament will act as a
qualifier for New Zealand 2008, with its top three finishers taking
their places alongside 13 others: three each from AFC, CAF,
CONCACAF and CONMEBOL, and one - the hosts - from OFC.
This is not the first time that New Zealand has welcomed the world's top youngsters; in 1999, the country staged the male equivalent, the FIFA U-17 World Cup , launching the careers of, among others, the competition's Golden Ball winner, Landon Donovan . This time, however, the emerging stars will be on show at more venues over a wider geographical spread, ensuring that fans from the tip of New Zealand's North Island to the base of its South Island won't have far to travel to grab a slice of the action.
'A watershed moment'
Late last month, FIFA Executive Committee member Chuck Blazer led an inspection visit of the six proposed venues in Auckland, Napier, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, and declared himself "very pleased" with the professionalism on show. Blazer will also have found that the enthusiasm he encountered in a meeting with New Zealand's Prime Minister, Helen Clark , is matched by all those involved in staging this fledgling tournament.
No-one, certainly, is looking forward to next year's extravaganza more than Michele Cox, a former New Zealand international who spearheaded her country's bid for the competition in her role as NZ Soccer's head of women's football. Cox, who described landing the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup as "a watershed moment for women's football and football in general in New Zealand", believes that both the competition and its hosts stand to win from their alliance.
"This is our chance to showcase the global nature of the game to New Zealanders and how women's football has exploded internationally," she has said. "And a big part of our bid was New Zealand itself - every single team will be happy to come here for a World Cup. We can become a boutique football country by doing it our own special Kiwi way."
Already, Cox and her colleagues have been in discussions with their LOC counterparts in Chile, home of the next FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup , to maximise the legacy left by their respective tournaments, and in New Zealand that has entailed launching a 'Get into Football' campaign in the nation's schools. Key LOC positions have also been filled, most notably with the appointment of former New Zealand basketball international Chris Simpson as Chief Executive.
Battle of the giants
For the aspiring participants, meanwhile, the road to New Zealand is already being mapped out. In Europe, over three-quarters of UEFA member associations were involved in the draw for the first group stage of the UEFA European Women's U-17 Championship , which pitted against each other the likes of Spain and Italy, France and Denmark, and Germany and Norway.
Those big names are included within ten groups of four who will
do battle between August and November 2007, with the top 16 sides
advancing to a second group stage in mid-April 2008, a month before
the finals are fought out.
Asia, meanwhile, are even further ahead in their preparations, with the AFC Women's U-16 Championship set to kick off tomorrow in Malaysia. Japan, who are defending their title at this level, have been grouped along with Korea DPR and Thailand, while Australia, China PR and Korea Republic make up the other section. The top two from each group progress to the semi-finals, with places in New Zealand on offer to the winners, runners-up and bronze medalists.
Elsewhere, the USA U-16 women's team met last month for a training camp in Carson, California to officially kick of their preparations for New Zealand 2008, while the hosts themselves stole a march on everyone by taking a 28-strong squad to Australia last autumn for an eight-day development tour.
The FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup will be open to players born after 1 January 1991 and will take place in late 2008, with dates to be confirmed by the FIFA Executive Committee at its meeting in Zurich in March.