by Ian Ranson
MELBOURNE, July 18 (Reuters) – Bigger, bolder and breaking new ground, the Women’s World Cup begins Thursday in Australia and New Zealand with the United States trying to extend their golden era by winning an unprecedented third straight title.
With an expanded 32-team, eight-nation roster making its debut, the first edition in the southern hemisphere will be an affirmation of how far women’s soccer has come since the US won the inaugural 12-team tournament in China in 1991. .
The 64-game masterpiece kicks off on both sides of the Tasman Sea on Thursday, with New Zealand taking on former champions Norway in front of a sellout crowd at Auckland’s Eden Park.
It will be a record attendance for a football match in the country if the expected 40,000 arrive.
That same evening, more than 80,000 people will pack Sydney’s Stadium Australia for the home team’s first match against newcomers Ireland, a crowd record for a women’s soccer game Down Under.
Four years after dominating France, the top-ranked Americans remain favorites to secure a record fifth World Cup win with a number of players.
However, the landscape has changed irrevocably throughout the World Cup cycle, with money, talent and professionalism moving towards the traditional European heart of the sport.
Once a cut above, the USA they are now just one of a number of nations with credible hopes of lifting the trophy in the Sydney final on August 20.
Germany, France, Sweden and European champions England envision their chances, while the Australian ‘Matildas’, in top form, hope to go far under the guidance of their star striker. sam kerr and with the support of an army of green fans.
olympic champions Canadawhich defeated the USA in the semifinals of the Tokyo Games, cannot be ruled out either, as they look to give 40-year-old Christine Sinclair a maiden title in her sixth World Cup.
‘JOY AND PRIDE’
While ticket sales have been slow in New Zealand, organizers have sold more than 1.25 million between the two co-hosts and healthy crowds are all but guaranteed in sports-mad Australia.
Teams will compete for triple the prize money offered in 2019, which includes direct payments to players for the first time.
That will be a boost for many of the athletes, who previously saw the profits from their work go exclusively to national soccer federations.
Other players say the money is , given the $440 million prize pool for the men’s World Cup.
Prize money for the women’s tournament is $150 million, which includes $42 million allocated as “prep money” to be distributed to clubs whose players compete in the tournament.
Base salary remains a big concern for many footballers in the tournament.
About a dozen of the 32 teams are still in negotiations with their federations over compensation and prize money, according to the global players union FIFPRO.
Players are likely to use the tournament as a platform to stream grievances on gender and pay inequality, just like American women in France in 2019.
Preparations have been smooth in the host countries, and each has a track record of hosting major sporting events.
But world governing body FIFA has been embarrassed by a clash with broadcasters over the sale of rights, despite record viewership for France in 2019, and only recently have deals been agreed in key European markets.
Although the crowds at European club matches have underscored the growing interest in women’s football, the World Cup may also highlight a gap between the haves and have-nots.
Teams from wealthy nations have enjoyed long training camps and playing moms they have taken children on tour, with on-call nannies paid by their federations.
Players from emerging countries have complained about poor preparations, and the Jamaicans have organized crowdfunding campaigns to help cover the costs.
However, after kickoff, the sport will dominate.
megan rapinoewho won the Golden Boot and Ballon d’Or in France, is back chasing more glory in America at the age of 38.
Back-to-back winner of the women’s Ballon d’Or midfielder Alexia Putellas leads Spain’s race for a first title.
Emerging players will dream of having the opportunity to participate in an event that becomes a great showcase for the best clubs in the world.
Debuting nations like Morocco, the first Arab team to qualify for the tournament, hope their presence will open minds and break boundaries for women and girls at home.
“We will represent all Arabs in this great event that anyone expects to participate in. We feel great joy and pride,” Morocco captain Ghizlane Chebbak said.
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford)
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