Less than two months on from a continental championship that witnessed record crowds and another German triumph, Europe’s top teams are preparing to refocus on their next major objective. Canada 2015 is the target that now looms tantalisingly before them, and all the usual heavyweight contenders will be involved as a field of 42 contenders vie for eight berths at the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
*For some of the continent’s biggest names, the upcoming qualifiers – which begin tomorrow with Macedonia-Romania and Estonia-Italy – will also usher in a new era. After all, significant changes have followed the EURO's conclusion, with several associations taking the opportunities to make changes in the dugout.
France, for example, will begin the road to Canada under new coach Philippe Bergeroo, who succeeded the long-serving Bruno Bini after *Les Bleues’ *shock quarter-final exit. The 59-year-old comes into the job having impressed in his roles with the national U-19 and U-17 sides, and will be hopeful of starting positively when his side travel to face Kazakhstan on Wednesday.
England are another team taking a fresh direction, with Hope Powell’s 15-year reign having come to an end after a dismal EURO campaign. U-23 coach Brent Hills is the man the FA have entrusted with taking temporary charge, and his first challenge will be to steer the team through a potentially tricky double-header against Belarus and Turkey.
Iceland, too, are beginning life under a new coach, with Freyr Alexandersson having been appointed successor to Siggi Eyjolfsson. The departing Eyjolfsson will be a hard act to follow, having twice led Iceland – a nation never before represented at a senior tournament – to the Women’s EURO. Qualifying for a first-ever FIFA Women’s World Cup would make for a perfect start to the Alexandersson era, although his side face a tough opening match against Switzerland in what is sure to be one of the round’s most evenly-matched encounters.
*Top billing, though, is sure to go to Germany’s opening qualifier, which pits them against fellow EURO finals attendees Russia on Saturday. Tournament runners-up Norway, for their part, will hope to bid on their excellent campaign in Sweden when they take on Belgium four days later.
The Swedes themselves begin the preliminary competition with high hopes, buoyed by the presence of a coach who knows just what is required to win titles at the highest level in the women’s game. Pia Sundhage had hoped for more than a semi-final finish at the EURO and, having fallen short on home soil, is in no doubt that improvement is required if her side are to challenge for the title in Canada.
"We played good football," said Sundhage, whose side kick off their campaign against Poland on Saturday, "but it won't be enough to win a medal at the 2015 World Cup. We need to go from good to better."
A similar improvement will be required of the debutants and emerging women's football nations attempting to make an impression in these FIFA Women’s World Cup qualifiers. Indeed, while the upcoming matches represent the start of the journey to Canada for most of the teams involved, four among their number are merely continuing on a road they began back in April.
Albania, Malta, the Faroe Islands and Montenegro were the teams who won through UEFA’s preliminary round earlier in the year, and all will be seeking to build on that achievement as they test themselves against the continent's elite.
The seven group winners will advance directly to Canada 2015, while the four best-placed runners-up will take part in a play-off for the final spot next October and November.
UEFA qualifying sections
Group 1: *Germany, Russia, Republic of Ireland, Slovakia, Sovenia, Croatia
*Group 2: Italy, Spain, Czech Republic, Romania, Estonia, Macedonia
Group 3: Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Serbia, Israel, Malta
Group 4: Sweden, Scotland, Poland, Northern Ireland, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Faroe Islands
*Group 5: *Norway, Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, Greece, Albania
*Group 6: *England, Ukraine, Belarus, Wales, Turkey, Montenegro
*Group 7: *France, Finland, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan