Faces old and new gather in Germany
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As anyone keeping tabs on the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s World Ranking will know, there have been few changes at the top in recent times. The leading seven have remained largely the same since March 2008, when USA returned to the pinnacle, a position they have held on to despite the best efforts of Germany, Brazil and Sweden, the three sides immediately below them.

Given their well-entrenched position, then, it has come as a surprise to see the all-powerful Americans struggle to book their place at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™.

Accustomed to steamrollering their way to FIFA world finals in all age categories, the Stars and Stripes appear to be losing their Midas touch. Earlier this year the U-17s lost out to Canada and Mexico in the race for a place at Trinidad and Tobago 2010, and now the senior side found their path to Germany 2011 similarly blocked by their next-door neighbours.

Having missed out on a direct qualifying place in the final of the CONCACAF qualifying event in Mexico earlier this month, the two-time world champions were forced into a two-leg play-off against Italy. Following a 1-0 win in Padua last weekend, however, the Americans look well set to finally reach their objective when the two meet again in Illinois this Saturday.

USA are one of seven teams to have appeared at every FIFA Women’s World Cup to date, along with Nigeria, Japan, Sweden, Norway, Brazil and Germany, all of whom have already confirmed their presence at next year’s big event.

One major force who will not be joining them in Germany are China, who have been in freefall since their quarter-final elimination at China 2007. The once-mighty Steel Roses have lost ground to rising powers North and South Korea and Japan, and it was the Japanese who brought their perfect qualification record to an end by defeating them in the third-place play-off at the AFC tournament in May this year.

Debutants at USA 2003, France are back in the big time after an eight-year absence. Les Bleues qualified in style too, winning 11 of their 12 matches and drawing the other, a goalless stalemate against Italy, who were the only side to score against them during the whole qualifying competition.

Also making a welcome return are Mexico, whose last FIFA Women’s World Cup appearance came at USA 1999. The Mexicans did it the hard way, beating the Americans at the semi-final stage in the CONCACAF competition and defying the expectations of their coach Leonardo Cuellar in the process.

“USA are ahead of everyone at the moment,” he commented prior to their last-four meeting in Cancun. “We’ve chosen the most difficult route and we need to pick ourselves up mentally and physically.” El Tri did just that, beating the Americans 2-1 to advance to the world finals with Canada.

A breath of fresh air
Investment in youth and hard work have been the key factors in the recent upturn in the fortunes of Colombia, who will be making their tournament debut at Germany 2011. Following on from the achievement of the U-20 side in finishing fourth at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Germany earlier this year, Las Cafeteras finished runners-up in the South American Women’s Championship, held this month in Ecuador.

Eight of that successful U-20 team have since made a successful transition to the senior side, proof of the hard work the Colombians have put in since the U-17s won the continental championship two years ago to clinch a berth at New Zealand 2008. Given their steep upward curve, it would be no surprise to see the youthful South Americans excel next summer.

Beating them to the continental title were Brazil, although that hardly came as a surprise given their amazing record in reaching FIFA Women’s World Cup finals. The Brazilians have won five out of six South American qualifying tournaments, winning 28 of their 29 games in the process, their only defeat coming against Argentina in the 2006 final.

Flying the flag for Africa in Germany will be ever-presents Nigeria and first-timers Equatorial Guinea, who knocked out the powerful Ghanaians en route to the final of the CAF African Women's Championships. Like the Colombians, however, the unfancied west Africans are no overnight success story, having been crowned African champions only two years ago.

The emergence of such teams is sure to add an extra dimension to the women’s game and to the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011 in particular, a tournament that promises to be a very special one. The draw for the big event takes place on Monday and you can follow what promises to be an intriguing occasion live, here at FIFA.com.