Hosts France to set ball rolling against Korea as World Cup kicks off
French President Emmanuel Macron (C-L) speaks to the players next to French first lady Brigitte Macron in Clairefontaine-en-Yvelines, southwest of Paris, on June 4, 2019 during the French women national football team preparation for the upcoming FIFA World Cup 2019 in France. (FRANCK FIFE / AFP)
(AFP) - The pressure is on France to live up to their status as one of the favourites as the host nation kick off their World Cup on Friday when they take on South Korea in the opening game before a sell-out crowd in Paris.
The spotlight is shining on women's football as never before heading into the month-long tournament, with crowds on the up around the world and interest increasing all the time while the contenders to lift the trophy in Lyon on July 7 are plentiful.
The French, captained by Lyon star Amandine Henry, will get the chance to showcase their credentials when they run out before 47,000 fans at the Parc des Princes to face the Koreans at 1900 GMT in the first match in Group A, which also contains Norway and Nigeria.
Les Bleues are ranked fourth in the world and are seen as the second favourites after the holders, the United States.
The country is home to Europe's leading club side, with Lyon last month winning a fourth consecutive Champions League, but the national team lost in the quarter-finals of the last World Cup, the last European Championship and the 2016 Olympics.
Despite that, the president of the French Football Federation, Noel Le Graet, has set the team the objective of going all the way to the final.
"That is what he said and that is what I am paid to do. If I don't fulfil that objective I will have to stand aside," coach Corinne Diacre told sports daily L'Equipe.
"We would have been disappointed if the objective was smaller. It proves that he has confidence in us. It means we are capable of doing it," added Diacre, a former French international who previously coached Clermont in the men's second division.
France's women are dreaming of matching the men, who are the reigning world champions and also won the World Cup as hosts in 1998.
"I am from that 1998 generation. We want to experience the same emotions," said Henry, one of seven Lyon players in the French squad.
South Korea lost 3-0 to France in the last 16 at the 2015 World Cup in Canada and would love to reach the knockout phase again. Their star player is the midfielder Ji So-yun of Chelsea.
"We need to build experience. We will try to win the game but we will have to accept the result whatever happens," their coach, Yoon Deok-yeo, said modestly.
It will be an intriguing opening game for the 24-team tournament, which will be played in nine cities across the country, with the semi-finals and final -- all sell-outs -- being played at the 58,000-seat home of Lyon.
Much has been made of the fact that Lyon's Norwegian striker, Ada Hegerberg, will not be here.
The inaugural women's Ballon d'Or winner, who scored a hat-trick for her club in last month's Champions League final, is at odds with her national federation and will be missed.
- USA target fourth title -
Nevertheless, despite that undoubted blow, organisers were pleased to announce on Thursday that more than 950,000 tickets had now been sold for the tournament, as the United States aim to lift the trophy for the fourth time.
They have made headlines in the run-up to the finals due to a legal dispute with their federation as they fight for equal pay.
For while their male counterparts remain also-rans internationally, the popularity of the US has been the financial motor that has driven the women's game.
Their squad in France includes superstars like Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan. They begin their campaign against unfancied Thailand in Reims, in Champagne country, next Tuesday.
Among the other contenders are England, who begin their bid for a first major trophy against old rivals Scotland in Nice on Sunday.
Germany are also serious contenders and they open their campaign on Saturday when they play China in Rennes in Group B. Spain play South Africa later in Le Havre in the same group before Norway and Nigeria clash in Reims.
© Agence France-Presse