As European Champions and World Cup runners-up, Germany will be going to the USA full of optimism. "Our draw in the 'killer group' has only made us more determined than ever to prepare thoroughly for the competition," said DFB head coach Tina Theune-Meyer when the draw was made.
And right from the start there is a tough match - a repeat of the final of the European championship against Italy. The Italians are looking strong contenders already. Getting Brazil in the same group was something that no team would have wished for. These three should be vying for the two qualifying places, while Mexico are still a rather unknown quantity. But Theune-Meyer is not put off by the opposition. "We have beaten all the top teams in the world in recent years," she states confidently. Qualifying for the Olympics is only a secondary aim; a World Cup medal is a more immediate ambition. But getting through the first round is not the only hurdle. "We really need to win the group, or we run the risk of meeting the USA in the quarter-final and not in the semis," she noted.
The Germans' preparation has been intensive, packing in as much as time would allow. But as in the World Cup qualifiers they performed below expectations. A weak showing against China (0:3 defeat) was followed by a convincing 4:1 win against the same opponent three days later, indicating a huge range of possibilities. Since the European Championship in 1997 the Germans have been trying to get more tactical flexibility into their game. This begins at the back with a very offensively-oriented defence, sometimes playing with a libero, sometimes square, but while this shows flexibility they become nervous if they fall behind. While Theune-Meyer is still trying out various tactical alternatives in their forward play, China's head coach Ma Yuanan praised their speed and determination after that excellent 4:1 win over his own side.
Theune-Meyer brings a team that is a good blend of youth and age, but already they all have a lot of experience behind them. Striker Birgit Prinz and midfield motor Bettina Wiegmann are certainly among the world's best. This is a team that is capable of anything, drawn from the huge pool of Bundesliga talent. Huge is the word, with currently over 70,000 registered players and the number is still rising, especially among the younger age groups. But public interest is not keeping pace. Only the national team attracts a decent crowd, and even there media interest is low. Television does broadcast live the more important matches, such as all the World Cup games and some of the qualifiers, and will even show the final preparatory game before the team flies off to America. But a normal league match is not likely to pull in much of a crowd. That goes for sponsors too. Sticking to known successes is more the order of the day than taking a risk in a new area. But at least the German players in the USA will have specially-made World Cup shirts for the first time.
*...are a team full of secrets. One thing is clear though - under coach Ze Duarte they are getting stronger year by year. After being among the also-rans at the 1991 and 1995 World Cups, they suddenly found themselves in the spotlight when they beat Germany at the Olympics and went on to reach the play-off for the bronze medals. Within their squad they have robust, strong defenders, clever and skilful midfielders, and quick, lively forwards. They will be able to field a truly world-class team for the World Cup. That many of the older experienced players have been replaced by younger ones should not be taken as a sign that the team will be weaker. Ze Duarte still has many "enoblias". In March he got the group together for the first time (30 players) at a training camp in Rio, during which they played in a tournament with club sides. At the end of May they travel to the north-west of the USA where they take part in another tournament. Among the opposition in Portland (Oregon) will be Canada and the USA, and this will be an opportunity for the Brazilians to show their real strength, which is expected to earn them a place among the top favourites. While it is estimated that 99 per cent of the Brazilian population is Catholic, it might be truer to say that the country's real religion is football. That goes for the women too.
*...are making their first appearance at a Women's World Cup, and are getting a baptism by fire, finding themselves drawn in a group in which all the other teams are among the favourites. "What a group to be in. This draw has been a very hard one for us, and is a real challenge," said Mexico's world selection player Laurie Hill, one of a number of players who have dual citizenship and live, study and play their football in the USA. Undaunted, they hope and dream of causing a sensation. "We'll surprise some people," forecasts assistant coach Henry Sosa on an optimistic note. Their preparations began at the end of February with a camp in Mexico City to which 60 players were invited. After a second week of training in the middle of March the squad was reduced to 30. At the end of March they played two matches against the USA. The statistics behind their 0:3 defeat in the Rose Bowl tell their own story. The ratios were: shots on goal 1:42, saves 16:1, corners 0:24. Beginning at the end of May there will be two test games in Canada and several matches against college teams in the north-west of the USA.
*...have been one of the most respected teams for many years, but they have not yet achieved any honours during World Cup finals. In China in 1991 they went out in the quarter-final against Norway. In 1995 they did not make it to Sweden since they lost - again to Norway - in the final qualifying round, while Norway went on to take the World Cup. The unlucky draw this time means that once again they could go out early and thus miss qualifying for the next Olympic tournament. During their preparatory phase, head coach Carlo Facchin, who replaced the popular Sergio Guenza, had to make his plans around the needs of the national league, and so the European runners-up were restricted to several short training camps and two friendly international matches. One took place at the end of April, the other in May. Facchin observed the Algarve Cup in Portugal in March, which gave him a chance to evaluate six of the other World Cup finalist teams, China, USA, Norway, Sweden, Australia and Denmark.