Cast your mind back to Sunday 12 October 2003 and the scene at the the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles. Having guided her team to a hard-fought 2-1 victory over Sweden after extra time, Germany captain Bettina Wiegmann lifted aloft the FIFA Women's World Cup trophy.

Almost four years on and, while the Mannschaft have cemented their reputation as worthy champions, their rivals have toughened up and made sure they are ready to mount a stern challenge for the title. China 2007 looks set to be one of the most closely contested finals in the history of the tournament.

China will be rocking to the rhythm of women's football this September, in what promises to a homecoming event for the host nation. After all, the Asian nation organised the inaugural FIFA Women's World Cup in 1991 and had originally been slated to host the 2003 edition.

Led by former Sweden coach Marika Domanski-Lyfors and with their exuberant home supporters behind them, China's Steel Roses are undoubtedly serious contenders this time around. Even so, they face stiff competition from reigning champions Germany, as well as usual suspects Sweden, Norway, USA and even Brazil. For the other ten hopefuls, the odds of victory are stacked against them; nevertheless, all have the benefit of previous experience at the finals.

The same cannot be said of all the players, given that many will be representing their countries at a FIFA Women's World Cup for the first time. For hosts China, much is expected of forward Ma Xiaoxu while the attack-minded midfielder Song Xiaoli should also provide a cutting edge. The Steel Roses can also call on talented 20-year-old goalkeeper Zhang Yanru, who was a revelation at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Championship Russia 2006.

Graduates of Russia 2006
The same goes for Argentina midfielder Ludmila Manicler and striker Maria Belen Potassa, both of whom made a big impact in Russia last year. Brazil fans will be hoping that defenders Elaine and Aline can emulate their performances at the last Pan-American Games, when the Auriverde clinched the gold medal on home soil.

Favourites USA will be looking to Natasha Kai and Lindsay Tarpley for inspiration, while Stephanie Lopez - the youngest player in the Stars and Stripes line-up - will be eager to make a name for herself. Meanwhile, Canadian hopes will be resting on the Canucks' defensive stalwart Robyn Gayle. New Zealand have arrived in China with their most promising squad in history. The Kiwis will be banking on youth in the form of promising defender Abby Erceg and midfield linchpin Annalie Longo.

As standard-bearers for the African continent, Nigeria will be relying on young guns such as striker Cynthia Uwak, who led her nation's charge to the quarter-finals of Russia 2006. Fellow contenders Ghana will be keen to maintain their meteoric rise to prominence, helped notably by speedy centre-forward Anita Amankwa.

Among the European contenders, reigning champions Germany have brought along up-and-coming strikers Petra Wimbersky and Anja Mittag. Sweden, another mainstay of European women's football, have made the trip to Asia with three novice goalkeepers including first-choice stopper Hedvig Lindahl. Neighbours Norway will be handing tournament debuts to no fewer than 13 players - keep an eye out for midfielder Ingvild Stensland, who has earned rave reviews in the highly-reputed Swedish league. Kelly Smith and Fara Williams will be carrying the hopes of England fans on their shoulders, while 29-year-old midfielder Catherine Paaske Sorensen will be expected to pull the strings for Denmark.

Lilly makes it five in a row
As for Asia's other representatives at the event, NTV Beleza stars Yuki Nagasato and Rumi Utsugi will be the main attraction for Japan fans. Australia's challenge will be driven by the left foot of Colette McCallum (a member of the FIFA All-Star squad at Russia 2006) and the imposing physique of Sally Shipard. Finally, deserved mention must go to Korea DPR forward Song-Hui Kim, who was second top scorer at Russia 2006 with five goals.

These aspiring stars may find it difficult to match the achievements of US veteran Kristine Lilly, who has appeared in all four previous FIFA Women's World Cups. Only two players have equalled her record in the men's game: Antonio Carbajal (Mexico, 1950, 1954, 1958, 1962 and 1966) and Lothar Matthäus (Germany, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994 and 1998). Fellow old-timer Wendi Henderson will also be celebrating New Zealand's return to the world stage, sixteen years after her first and only previous appearance.

Five host cities have been chosen to accommodate the athletes. Among the destinations, Shangai is sure to be the centre of attention on 30 September when Hongkou Football Stadium hosts the final of the tournament. In the meantime, Chengdu (Sports Center Stadium), Hangzhou (Dragon Stadium), Tianjin (Olympic Center Stadium) and Wuhan (Sports Center Stadium) will also have the honour of welcoming the finest footballers in the women's game.

So, the curtain is all ready to be lifted on a fun-filled 20 days of competition, featuring 32 matches overseen by a delegation of 36 referees. Further records could fall as the 336 players attempt to register the highest average of goals scored per match. The current record of 3.84 dates back to the 1999 edition. Even so, a single goal would suffice for Australia, Argentina and New Zealand, who all have yet to open their accounts at the FIFA Women's World Cup.

The stage is set, the fans are ready - it is time for the stars of China 2007 to start shining.