A relaxed atmosphere prevailed at the magnificent wine estate of Vina Cousino-Macul as the representatives of the 16 qualifiers for the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup Chile 2008 followed the eagerly awaited Official Draw ceremony. And when it was all over, this is how the four groups looked:
The first reactions came just as soon as the fate of the qualifying nations had been decided, and in the case of Chile coach Marta Tejedor, things worked out pretty much to plan. The Spanish tactician had been hoping to come up against New Zealand, and her wishes came true when the Oceania representatives were drawn in Group A alongside England and Nigeria.
"We're happy," said Tejedor. "At last we know who our rivals are. England and New Zealand are two teams we know well because we've played them before. We need to use the information we have on them and make sure we prepare properly. It's an interesting and exciting group and I'm hoping we can finish as high as possible."
"We've beaten England and we'll be looking at the videos of the two teams we've played before," commented Chile captain Daniela Pardo. "We need to be strong and that's something that's entirely up to us. I can't say if we're going to win but I can assure you we've been working very hard."
A look at the history books suggests La Rojita could be in for a good run. In the last two FIFA tournaments staged in Chile, the host nation went all the way to the semi-finals on both occasions, finishing third at the 1962 FIFA World Cup™ and fourth at the 1987 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
Mo Marley, Tejedor's English opposite number, believes the Chileans will prove tough opponents on home soil. "We've all got high expectations of reaching the knockout phase, and perhaps the hardest thing for us will be starting off against Chile, who will have their fans right behind them. It will be an exciting experience and we're hoping to make the most of it and play our very best football."
Memories of Russia
As fate would have it, Saturday's draw produced a virtual carbon copy of one of the sections at Russia 2006. Rivals in Group D two years ago, France, Argentina and USA find themselves pitched together again, this time in Group B, with China PR rounding off the pool. One man hoping the French and Americans do not claim the top two places again is Argentina coach Carlos Borrello.
"What a coincidence to be drawn against France and USA again," said the Albiceleste tactician. "There's no doubt that the Americans are the strongest side in the group. France seem to be a level or two below the others and we can't afford to make any mistakes against them."
Germany coach Maren Meinert followed the draw at home and spoke of the difficulties her side face in Group C. "Congo are an unknown quantity but they could be dangerous. All we know is that they run a lot and battle hard for the whole game. As for Canada, they must be CONCACAF champions for a reason. They're a skilful side and they'll be very tough rivals. Lastly, we'll need to show Japan a lot of respect because they're a physically strong team and they've come on a lot technically in the last few years too.
"Our first objective is to qualify for the next round but it's going to be a tough challenge because we'll be up against three different styles and playing on two different types of surfaces - grass and artificial turf."
Into the unknown
Few countries can match Norway's record in women's football. The Scandinavians were FIFA Women's World Cup champions in 1995, four years after finishing runners-up in the competition, and won Olympic gold at Sydney 2000 to add to the bronze they picked up at Atlanta 1996. Strangely enough, though, this is their first appearance in the competition.
"It's going to be a fantastic World Cup because we're taking on Korea DPR, Brazil and Mexico," commented coach Jarl Torske, whose side were drawn in Group D. "It's going to be a totally new experience as we've never faced any of these teams. That's going to make things exciting as well as difficult because they're among the best sides in the world."
Mexico were one of Korea DPR's victims when they powered to the title two years ago, going down 4-0 in the group phase. The Asians, who won every one of their six games at Russia 2006, also edged out Brazil 1-0 in the semi-finals.
The stage is set then for an exciting three weeks of action, and Chilean President, Michelle Bachelet, summed up the thoughts of everyone when she spoke of the importance of the women's game. "The biggest change in the last century has been the incorporation of women into the world of work. This development is now taking place in football and in Chile, and let me make one thing very clear: football may be the king of sports but there is no doubt that the ball is the queen."