By John Duerden
The Women's World Cup gets underway on June 7 and will kick off with South Korea against the host France in Paris. It should be quite a game.
Korea may not be a traditional power in the women's game but the tournament is growing in stature and the eyes of the soccer world will be on France. Five days after the game with France, the East Asian team will meet Nigeria before ending Group A with a clash against Norway.
There are 24 nations competing for the ultimate prize over the period of a month. Korea has only appeared at the tournament twice in the past and made the second round in 2015. Getting to the same stage this time round is the obvious first target and while it is in reach, it will be far from easy.
The good news is that only eight of the 24 teams ―split into six groups of four ― will be going home at the end of the first round. The top two from each group progress as do four of the six best performing teams that finish in third. Four points, a win and a tie, will pretty much guarantee an extended stay in France.
The opening game is obviously the most difficult. France is not only the host but is ranked fourth in the world. Home support could help push the team all the way to the title.
Yet strange things can happen in the first games of World Cups and opening night jitters have been known to happen before even to the best of teams.
The men ended the last World Cup by defeating defending champions Germany 2-0 and dumping the number one team out of the competition. It would be a pleasing symmetry indeed if the women could get a similarly stunning result this June.
It could be that the crucial game will be the second one against Nigeria. The Africans are ranked 38 in the world, 24 places below the Koreans. On paper at least, the odds are on the women from Seoul. Win that and all should be well and the game against Norway. If Ji So-yun, the star who has scored 54 goals for South Korea in 115 appearances, shines then there is always a chance especially if Cho So-hyun of West Ham United also finds her form.
The United States are seen as the team to beat and comes to France as the defending champion after beating Japan in the final four years ago. The team has also been in excellent form and has genuine stars such as Megan Rapinoe, Allie Long and Alex Morgan.
Japan, champion in 2011, is always strong and then there are others such as the Netherlands, Germany and England who will be expecting to go far. South Korea is not yet in that group but this is a team that has the capacity to surprise.