Without doubt, Tony DiCicco's women's team are number one favourites to take the World Cup title in their own country. As World Cup winners in 1991, bronze medallists against China in 1995 and Olympic champions in 1996, the USA have a team that very few others have been able to beat in the last few years. With all this success behind them, it is no surprise that hopes are high this time too. The intensive media interest has added to the speculation, and yet the head coach, who naturally enough would like to fulfil all these expectations, tries to play things down and not let complacency set in. "You could call this the group of the unknowns, since nobody has much idea about Nigeria or North Korea. Denmark have always been a tough and physically strong opponent and they will be a good test for us in the first game." These were his comments after the group draw. The Koreans could pose problems for any team and the Nigerians are getting stronger all the time.
That the USA are not invincible was shown first in March during the Algarve Cup, when they were held to a 1:1 draw by Sweden. Then came a very tight match against Norway, the only team to have a positive record against the USA, and a defeat in the final against China. Germany and Brazil have also managed victories against the American girls in recent years.
Their star forward, Mia Hamm, with over 160 international matches and over 100 goals to her credit, see things like this: "The World Cup is the biggest event of them all, and we respect the fact that Norway are defending champions. It's a real challenge to play against them, and we'll have to be at our very best if we want to win the title back again."
As usual, the USA team is preparing very professionally for the competition, in which they have two main aims: to win gold in the biggest ever women's sporting event and to help women's football to make the big breakthrough in their own country. At the start of the year they went off to their permanent camp in Florida. A total of no fewer than 25 international matches in 1998 gave them the chance to get to know all the stadiums and all their opponents. Then came 19 more matches this year, including one against a selected World Team. Who will be able to hold them? That's a difficult question to answer. Their preparation has been planned down to the tiniest detail; there is even a kindergarten available, since more players in this team are married and have children than in any other squad.
The top stars in America have been idolised by the 8 million and more women and girls who play the game, and the countless fans as well. Kristine Lilly, the player with highest number of caps in the world, who is unmistakable with the number 13 on her back, is already a legend back home; entering her town you will see a sign by the roadside: 'Wilton, Connecticut - hometown of Kristine Lilly.'
At the end of May, a sports centre in Portland Oregon was named after Mia Hamm. And as Mia herself said to the media when the draw was made: "We have given it all we could over the years and we plan to do the same for the World Cup. Now it's up to you to do the same."
*..are the great unknowns in Group A. Behind the dominance of China, North Korea are looking likely to displace Japan from the number two spot in Asia. During the World Cup qualifiers they beat the Japanese in the semi-final and then overcame China, who had a home crowd behind them, after extra time in the final. Kim Kum Sil is their main goalscorer; she made sure that her team repeated their success over Japan in the final of the Asian games last year in Thailand. "We want to be number one in Asia," said their coach, Myong Tong Chan, giving his medium-range ambition. "At the World Cup we want to reach the quarter-finals and qualify for the Olympic Games." On the physical side, the Koreans lack height and that could cause problems. But in tackling they give in to nobody, and their non-stop efforts make up for any tactical or technical deficiencies. As part of their preparations for the USA, their coach entered them for an 8-team tournament in Bulgaria (at which they won the bonze medals with a 2:1 win over Ukraine, who are ranked no better than average in Europe), and there will be an intensive one-month training camp in May.
*...are regarded as the major force in women's football in Africa. They have qualified for all three World Cups so far, and since 1995 there has been a complete change-about in many respects. But what has remained the same is their style of play. "We are fast and strong, and we can fight," says their goal-getter, "Marvellous" Mercy Akide. In physical terms they are stronger than any other team in their continent. The lively 24-year old striker is full of confidence: "We will get to play against the USA, don't you worry," she says, "they are the same kind of girls as we are." 'Straight from 'd' heart: Super Falcons can rule the world,' ran a headline in their own press. As a football-mad country, Nigeria will send a large media delegation to the USA. Whether it's the men or the women playing, the nation is behind the team. Nigeria's 'Super Falcons' plan to make up for their previous disappointing World Cup performances and qualify as the first African team ever for the Olympics. "The girls will play a number of friendly matches in Europe and America, to make sure that we get past the first round," says coach Paul Hamilton. One stage in their preparation was a three week camp in the Netherlands (a country with which they have traditionally close relationships) and among other games they played a 1:1 draw against the Dutch, who are currently regarded as among the best in Europe.
*...traditionally turns out with a young national team containing a fewexperienced leaders with over 50 caps to their credit. The man in charge of women's football for the DBU, Jörgen Hermansen, sees their group draw as a tough one: "We don't know much about North Korea and Nigeria, but we'll have to be very sharp if we want to qualify for the quarter-finals behind the USA, who have to be the favourites here. But that is our aim." The team went to a training camp in Lanzarote for a week in March as part of their preparation. Then they took part in an 8-nations tournament in Portugal, where in the battle for the Algarve Cup they reached the semi-finals and were beaten by Norway in the play-off for third place. In April there was a short training camp and two international matches. A final camp session will be held in June. In Denmark football is very popular for women and girls, but has stiff competition from handball and of course the men's game.