History in the making Down Under
© Foto-net

It is now nine years since New Zealand last hosted a football showpiece, yet the legacy of the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 1999 serves as a powerful reminder of why the Kiwis are once again throwing their doors open to the world.

All it takes, in fact, is a look back at the class of '99 - a group that included the likes of Michael Essien, Landon Donovan, Thomas Hitzlsperger and Pepe Reina - to demonstrate the value in a global finals at U-17 level. After all, while it is impossible to quantify the role played by this competition in honing the burgeoning talents of Essien and Co, it was undoubtedly a logical and natural step that FIFA should provide the game's most promising female stars with the same opportunity to test themselves against the world's best.

The decision to take the final step in establishing parity between FIFA's men's and women's youth competitions has certainly been met by near-universal acclaim, with Canada's U-17 coach Bryan Rosenfeld among those paying tribute. "You only need to look at the players who've emerged from the U-17 men's competition to see the kind of impact it will have on women's football," he told FIFA.com. "It's a massive leap forward in terms of us developing an even better standard of female players."

FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter, whose proclamation that "the future of football is feminine" is well known, has been equally adamant that this new tournament is "essential for the development and expansion of women's football". Blatter has also urged the rugby-dominated host nation to seize this opportunity to embrace the beautiful game, promising that they will be treated to "something very special".

Too close to call
Tatjana Haenni, FIFA's Head of Women's Competitions, has also predicted Kiwi fans will be "pleasantly surprised" by the standard of football on show, yet in truth no-one really knows what to expect. Nonetheless, while a brand new tournament featuring hitherto unknown women's youth players would be seen to equal a blank canvas for the 16 nations involved, some familiar names are being widely tipped to dominate.

There should be no surprise, certainly, that Germany and USA, who between them have captured four out of the five senior FIFA Women's World Cups to date, start among the favourites, with both having coasted to victory in their continental preliminaries. Football is nothing if not unpredictable, however, and New Zealand 2008 boasts plenty of teams capable of ripping up the script.

Asian champions Korea DPR, for example, are considered well capable of emulating their stunning success at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in Russia two years ago, while their South American counterparts Colombia have made no secret of their ambition to take home the title. With Nigeria highly rated, France in fine form and hosts New Zealand confidently predicting they will go where no Kiwi team has gone before, it seems best to expect some twists and turns en route to the final.

No matter who emerges with the trophy, this landmark tournament is assured of making history. A perfect example comes in the shape of Ghana's Ellen Coleman, who at just 12 years and 10 months old, is in line to become the youngest-ever player - male or female - to appear in a competitive FIFA match.

And while little is guaranteed about New Zealand 2008, FIFA.com users can be sure of one thing: with live video, free highlights, daily news and on-the-whistle match summaries, you will not miss a thing.