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Biggest Women’s World Cup kicks off with host nations in spotlight

The first Women’s World Cup to feature 32 teams kicks off on Thursday with New Zealand taking on former winners Norway in the opening game in Auckland before co-hosts Australia face the Republic of Ireland in front of 80,000 fans in Sydney.

The month-long tournament has expanded from the 24-team event at the last edition in France four years ago and is being staged in two different countries for the first time, in nine cities across Australia and New Zealand, AFP reports.

While Australia’s Matildas are hoping to go all the way to the final in Sydney on August 20, New Zealand’s ambitions on home soil are more modest.

The Football Ferns are hoping to win a World Cup match for the first time at the 16th attempt when they play Norway at Eden Park at 0700 GMT, following the tournament’s opening ceremony.

“Our goal is pretty clear. We want to win our first World Cup match. We want to make it out of our group,” captain Ali Riley told reporters on the eve of the Group A game.

New Zealand, coached by Jitka Klimkova, are ranked 26th in the world and have won just once in their last 11 matches.

Norway, meanwhile, won the World Cup in 1995 when current coach Hege Riise was the star player.

They have come to New Zealand seeking to banish the memory of last year’s Euro, when they lost 8-0 to hosts England on the way to a group-stage exit.

– Kerr carries Aussie hopes –

“Everything feels very different, nothing to compare with how we left the tournament last year,” said Norway’s Caroline Graham Hansen, the midfielder with Champions League winners Barcelona.

“It is a clean slate. We have a possibility to start afresh and to get going again. That is the beauty of football. There is always a new chance and now we have it again.”

Tenth-ranked Australia will be looking to star forward and captain Sam Kerr to lead them in Thursday’s second game, against an Irish side who are one of eight Women’s World Cup debutants.
Australian fans are looking beyond simple progress from Group B and towards the latter stages, but Chelsea striker Kerr is not getting ahead of herself.

“We are really confident, but for us it’s just about the first game,” Kerr, the unofficial face of the tournament, said on Wednesday.

“Right now we are playing that game with no other game in mind, so that’s our final at this point.”

– ‘Seize the moment’ –

While a packed crowd of 80,000 is expected to attend that game, FIFA officials said Wednesday that a total of 1,375 million tickets had been sold for the tournament.

That means the overall number of ticket sales from the 2019 Women’s World Cup has been surpassed, despite concerns about lower take-up in New Zealand.

“My only message that I want to get out here is: seize the moment, be proud of what you have been able to achieve here, in New Zealand, in Australia,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino told reporters in Auckland on Wednesday as he urged fans to snap up remaining tickets.

“Be proud of what will be the biggest event — not just sports event — that has been organised here so far.”

Holders the United States are the favourites to win an unprecedented third consecutive title, and a record-extending fifth overall.

They begin their title defence on Saturday against minnows Vietnam, with European champions England in action the same day against Haiti.

The expansion of the Women’s World Cup has come with greatly increased prize money.

The total pot provided by FIFA, which also covers compensation for clubs releasing players, is up from $50 million in 2019 to a record $152 million.

It is a vast hike on the $15 million offered in 2015, but still pales in comparison with the $440 million dished out at the 32-team men’s World Cup in Qatar last year.