Excitement grows as kick-off looms

Exactly two months from today, the first-ever FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup will kick off in Auckland with a match between Canada and hosts New Zealand. Already, however, efforts are in full swing to ensure that this fledgling tournament captures the national imagination long before that eagerly-awaited curtain-raiser at North Harbour Stadium.

Key to the LOC's campaign has been a hugely successful trophy tour, one which has seen the competition's spectacular, English-made prize spend two weeks in each of the four host cities, visiting schools, clubs and sporting organisations. Leading this expedition has been Maia Jackman, arguably the greatest female player New Zealand has produced and someone who as recently as last year was representing both her country and a FIFA Women's World Stars team in China.

The chance to meet and ask questions of this national sporting great certainly helped spark enthusiasm among youngsters in Jackman's home town of Auckland, which as well as staging the opening match, will also play host to the final on 16 November. One especially memorable stop on the Auckland leg of the tour saw the now-retired Kiwi international return to her former school, Epsom Girls' Grammar. With three of New Zealand's U-17 hopefuls still on the school roll, there was always going to be massive excitement among the youngsters at hearing all about - and seeing - the prize for which their friends and fellow pupils will do battle in just a few short weeks.

Various football clubs, the regional sports trust and referees' and coaches' summits also welcomed the trophy, while a spot at the city's Coca-Cola Careers Expo saw magazines, stickers, posters, books and CDs handed out to a 17,000-strong crowd. Among those who posed for a photograph with the star attraction were 11-year-old friends Kim Dyer and Charlotte Hull, both keen footballers for whom seeing the trophy only served to whet their appetites. "I'll definitely want to watch [the tournament]," said Charlotte. "I'll try to convince my dad to take me... I think it will be lots of fun to have it in New Zealand."

Host cities prepare to put on a show
Sixty-six miles down the road in Hamilton, plans for offering a warm welcome to the teams and fans alike are also moving up a level, with the city set to be 'themed' in an attempt to create a carnival atmosphere. As part of these efforts, a selection of the Hamilton's secondary schools have been encouraged to adopt a team to support during the tournament as well as designing event banners that will be put on public display. Plans are also afoot for a public football tournament where players of all ages will be able to compete and join in the fun.

In Wellington, meanwhile, schools are also at the centre of efforts to drum up enthusiasm on the back of a notable achievement for the pride of the city's football community, Wellington Phoenix. By finishing runners-up in the A-League Pre-Season Cup, beating Aussie rivals Central Coast, Queensland and Sydney, New Zealand's sole representative in the Australian A-League earned the right to stage the A-League Cup final on Kiwi soil for the first time ever, only missing out on the trophy by the narrowest of margins in a penalty shoot-out with Melbourne Victory.

Passion for football and excitement about the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup isn't confined to the North Island, however. Down in Christchurch, the city's renowned International Antarctic Centre has already been confirmed as the venue for an official welcome ceremony at which the participating teams will have exclusive use of the facilities and be able to enjoy a ride on an all-terrain Hagglund vehicle.

"We're looking forward to showing off the very best our city has to offer to these teams who come from every corner of the globe," said Michael Aitken, general manager of community services for the Christchurch City Council. "A chance to compete at the inaugural FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and it's an honour for Christchurch to be a part of that."

The clock is ticking and with the respective teams now putting the final touches to their preparatory programmes, New Zealand is also in the latter stages of limbering up for its first global football finals since the male U-17 equivalent in 1999. The enthusiasm can probably best be gauged by the fact that almost 1000 keen members of the public have now stepped forward to volunteer at FIFA's newest competition, and while two months might not seem a long time, this is a country that can clearly hardly wait.