There are few teams in the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup with higher expectations than the USA, who make their tournament bow against Japan on Thursday in Hamilton. Kaz Tambi's team take the field in the morning game, while in the afternoon Les Bleuettes of France take on Paraguay at the same venue. Over in Wellington, Group D action kicks off with Brazil facing England and Korea Republic paired with African champions Nigeria.
All eyes will be on the USA team as the favourites make their first appearance at the finals. Led by the prolific Scorpions SC duo of sisters Kristie and Sam Mewis, Kaz Tambi's side present a formidable prospect after their dominance of the CONCACAF qualifying competition, in which they amassed 29 goals in five games. The USA girls will be looking to emulate the senior side's achievements at the Beijing Olympics, and few would bet against them doing so.
Their first obstacle is Japan, who are certainly not be underestimated. The Young Nadeshiko defeated traditional Asian powers China on the way to qualifying for New Zealand, and AFC Technical Study Group co-ordinator Kelly Cross was moved to remark on the great quality of coach Hiroshi Yoshida's fluent, technically superb team. The Olympic semi-final between the senior versions of these two sides was hard-fought and exciting; football fans in Hamilton will be hoping for more of the same from the youngsters.
Later in the day, the other teams in Group C, France and Paraguay, will do battle. Les Bleuettes enter the tournament in fine fettle, having qualified for the UEFA U-17 championships in some style, disposing of Italy 5-0 to secure their place. Boasting a 4-0 win against Denmark in qualifying for New Zealand as well, Gerard Sergent's charges have every reason to be confident. Not over-confident, however, given the Paraguayans' 4-1 win over Brazil in the CONMEBOL qualifying competition.
That same Brazil side will open their campaign against England in Wellington on Thursday morning. Lois Fidler's England side will be looking to improve on their performances in the recent UEFA qualifiers, in which they failed to secure a place at the continental finals. Marcos Gaspar's Brazilians, for their part, will be looking to go one better than their senior team, who gained successive runners-up spots at the FIFA Women's World Cup 2007 and the Women's Olympic Football tournament.
The group's other game pits African champions Nigeria against Korea Republic. The Flamingoes will be heartened by the news that injuries have weakened the Korean squad, with key midfielder Yeo Min-Ji ruled out and captain Ji So-Yun looking doubtful for the opener.
13 - the number of players in Korea Republic's squad of 21 who play for Dongsan Information Industry High School, making the school the joint-biggest provider of players for the tournament, along with Korea DPR's April 25 Sports Group.
What they said
"It's hard to say that we're the favourites here, because there's no real history in this age group," USA coach Kaz Tambi.