Stage set for Norway's sister act

There may well be one or two players at the FIFA Women's World Cup with an exaggerated sense of their own importance but, if so, they are keeping themselves well hidden. This, certainly, is a tournament considerably more relaxed and intimate than its male counterpart, and much of what is good about it is exemplified by Norway's Knutsen sisters.

Bubbly, approachable, endearingly modest and utterly determined to enjoy every minute of the China 2007 experience, the pair's natural enthusiasm proves as infectious as their oft-heard laughter. Oh yes, and they can play a bit too.

Ask them if they are friends as well as siblings and Marie, 25, and Guro, three years her junior, respond immediately and in unison: "Oh yeah, best friends!" So inseparable are the two, in fact, that they rent a flat together, play for the same club side, Roa, and had to be banned from rooming together in China by coach Bjarne Berntsen.

Proud parents
There is precious little the sisters do not have in common, and in Norway's 1-1 draw with Australia, they were also able to share something else: the biggest stage in women's football. "That was fantastic," Marie recalled. "I had a big smile on my face when I saw Guro coming on, partly because she's my sister but also because I enjoy playing with her. We used to be very similar types of players but now we complement each other well."

Nodding, Guro added: "We play for the same club in Norway and always seem to link up very effectively. Marie plays in the centre, I am on the right, and everyone says that we have a great understanding. For me, it's great to have my sister with me at this tournament because we really are very close, we're not like these sisters who fight all the time.

"They haven't allowed us to room together here. They thought it would be good for us to split up and mix with the other girls. But Marie is always in my room regardless and, anyway, in this squad no-one keeps to themselves, everyone mixes really well. There are no closed doors with us."

China 2007 is certainly proving something of a family affair for the Knutsens, with Marie and Guro's proud parents both having made the 3,500-mile journey to watch their daughters do battle in the global showpiece. "It was great for them that both of us were picked, it wouldn't have been the same otherwise," said Marie, referring to the fact that it was far from certain that Guro, capped just twice prior to being named in the squad, would make the cut.

"They are very proud, definitely," she added. "I actually think they were even more excited than us when we both got on in the Australia game. We have also had some free time after the games, so we have been able to spend quite a lot of time with them and just be tourists."

Gold shoes and dreams of silverware
There may be little danger of these unpretentious sisters taking themselves too seriously - Marie even packed a pair of gold party shoes in preparation for any end-of-tournament celebrations - but neither do they fit the 'girls just want to have fun' mould. Like the rest of the Norway squad, the Knutsens' relaxed, carefree demeanour belies a fiercely competitive spirit that ensures they are unlikely to wilt in the white-hot atmosphere their quarter-final with China is sure to generate.

"China will be a very exciting opponent, that should be a fun match for us," was Guro's verdict. "They will be very tough, especially as they are at home, and I can just imagine what the atmosphere will be like. They have a good team but if we get them on a good day for us, I'm pretty confident that we'll win. We're definitely looking to stay in the competition beyond the quarter-finals."

A podium place has certainly long since been Norway's stated aim at China 2007, but in the wake of Berntsen's side topping Group C with a couple of points to spare, the elder Knutsen believes that they can begin dreaming of repeating their 1995 title-winning triumph. "Yeah, I think so," said Marie. "I think we can play better than we have so far, that's for sure. We came here to challenge for the title and once you get to the quarter-finals, I always feel that anything can happen."