They have gone to Germany virtually unknown outside the world of women’s football, but England have never had a better chance to become poster girls for the biggest sport on the planet.
The Women’s World Cup will kick off in front of around 70,000 fans at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium on Sunday when the hosts take on Canada.
Three-quarters of the tournament’s 900,000 tickets have already been sold and, in Germany alone, Panini have shifted more than 4.5million of their first-ever official sticker album for the competition.
Most German sports fans would recognise players such as Birgit Prinz, the three-time FIFA World Player of the Year, hence a TV commercial currently airing in which a pub argument concludes with her being named the greatest player of all time.
Not Pele, not Maradona, not even Beckenbauer in the land of Der Kaiser.
Winger Rachel Yankey is one of the few England players who transcends her sport. She seems to have been centre stage at every major moment in the rise of the women’s game but her profile still hardly compares to that of Prinz.
‘The game has got bigger and better over the years,’ said Yankey, 31, who is the most-capped current England player with 109.
‘When I went to school I didn’t even know women played football. I just thought I was the odd one out.’
She was the face of Fulham Ladies when Mohamed Fayed made the short-lived move of turning the side professional 11 years ago.
For the past six years Yankey has been key in Arsenal’s domestic domination, but real recognition will only come with success on the international stage.
‘If England do well, people will want to know about women’s football,’ she said. ‘It’s down to us to make sure we put on a good show that can make people proud to be English and talk about the Women’s World Cup.’
Since FIFA established the tournament 20 years ago, England have qualified just twice, each time falling at the quarter-final stage.
But Hope Powell, manager since 1998, says this is her strongest-ever squad.
Belief also comes from finishing runners-up to Germany in the European Championship two years ago – a tournament in which Yankey made headlines for the wrong reasons.
Powell left her most experienced player out of the squad before criticising her form and questioning her attitude.
Many wondered if there was a way back for Yankey, but she was straight back into the squad after the tournament and has been a regular since.
‘I was shocked, disappointed – and everything else that you can think of,’ she recalled.
‘I didn’t agree with some of the stuff that was mentioned about why I was dropped, but that’s a decision that was taken.
‘I didn’t believe that I’d done anything wrong. You can sit and mope or you can get up and get on with it – and that’s what I chose to do.’
WHAT WE NEED TO KNOW…
Where is it and when does it start?
Hosts Germany play their first match at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium on Sunday, against Canada. England’s first game is against Mexico in Wolfsburg on Monday.
What’s the format?
It lasts for three weeks, with 16 teams split into four groups. The top two in each group qualify for the quarter-finals.
Do England have much of a chance?
Well, they’re ranked 10th in the world and have high hopes after finishing second to Germany in the European Championship two years ago. They have beaten USA (ranked No 1) and Sweden (No 5) this year.
So should we start planning street parties?
Not yet. Topping the group is a must to realistically avoid a quarter-final against Germany, who are big favourites and have never lost to England. The hosts have won the last two tournaments and haven’t lost in the finals of a World Cup or European Championship since 1999 – a run of 28 games. The only draw in that sequence was against England four years ago, but they did beat Powell’s side 6-2 in the European final in 2009.
But England should win the group, right?
The draw has been favourable. Japan should be the main threat, with Mexico and New Zealand making up Group B. Playmaker Kelly Smith is one of the best footballers in the world, but England still lack a ruthless centre forward.
Is it on TV?
Yes, all of England’s games will be live on the BBC red button and BBC website, with highlights on BBC 2. The final, in Frankfurt on July 17, will be on BBC3.
THE OTHER THREE GROUPS
Group A: Germany (world ranking: 2), Canada (6), Nigeria (27), France (7)
Group C: USA (1), North Korea (8), Colombia (31), Sweden (5)
Group D: Brazil (3), Australia (11), Norway (9), Equatorial Guinea (61).
Source : www.dailymail.co.uk