The 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup starts on Sunday and runs through July 17. On the eve of the 6th edition of the tournament, here's some storylines to watch:
Germany is already unstoppable in Europe, having won seven of the last eight European Championships -- Italy was the last team to beat the Germans at the UEFA contest, in 1993. Now the side led by Silvia Neid -- who captained the German team that was beaten by Norway in the 1995 final -- is six games away from a World Cup hat trick. Birgit Prinz will retire after the final on July 17, giving the competition's all-time leading goal scorer even greater incentive to leave a lasting mark on proceedings. USA could have a big say in that if, as anticipated, the two meet in the semifinal.
The Brazilian team boasts Marta -- arguably the best female soccer player ever; at any rate there's no argument that she's been the best in the world for at least the last five years, when FIFA has named her as such. Yet she and her teammates have had to be content with silver medals at the last two Olympic tournaments, beaten in both finals by the USA. In between, Nadine Angerer's 2007 World Cup final penalty save landed Brazil with another set of runners-up medals. Can they shake off that hoodoo? The draw favors Marta and co. slightly but they'll probably still have to beat USA or Germany if they reach the final.
The top four -- Germany, USA, Canada and Brazil -- seems easy to pick, but in the last few World Cups, we've seen decent runs by unfancied teams: think Brazil reaching the semis in 1999, Canada beating China in the 2003 quarterfinals, and Australia pipping Canada -- then scaring Brazil -- in 2007. Can the Matildas continue their ascent and beat Norway out of Group C? Could England match the best of Group A to reach the semifinals for the first time? Or maybe Mexico will bring its A-game and finally make it to the knockout stages.
The World Cup isn't often something teams take to instantly. There were no debutantes in 2007, and all three in 2003 -- South Korea, Argentina and France -- left at the end of the group stage. Will things pan out differently for Colombia and Equatorial Guinea? It's easier to imagine the South Americans causing a stir -- if not upsetting predictions then at least wowing the crowds with their skillful soccer. Could Equatorial Guinea make that kind of impact? The team deposed perennial African champion Nigeria in 2008, but even the Nigerians have only posted two wins in 16 matches since 1991.
The Germans have gone all out promoting these finals, sending former Washington Freedom and FFC Frankfurt defender Steffi Jones, owner of 111 caps and leader of the organizing committee, on a tour of the competing nations and laying on Champagne receptions with tourist organizations. FIFA's head of women's competitions says more media have applied for accreditation than ever before, and games will be broadcast in more than 200 territories. Will these finals have a Brandi Chastain moment to send out a ripple?
There is a clutch of exciting players in the German squad but Turbine Potsdam forward Bajramaj could make a real impact in a playmaking role. Her close control of the ball is good even at speed and as well as picking and playing excellent passes (whether surrounded by defenders or not; she disguises her intent beautifully), she can finish from inside or outside the box. No doubt she'll take a few kicks from slower defenders, who'll have to turn in an instant to stay with her otherwise.
Fans have been frustrated by Pia Sundhage's use of Morgan (drafted in the first round by Western New York Flash this year) as a second-half substitute, and Morgan herself told reporters recently that she would not settle for being a bench player. Sundhage is convinced that Morgan's speed and creativity can make a bigger impression when the opposition is already tired, and that she's still too unrefined a talent for a starting role. Either way, the U.S.' forward line can look staid without her drive, allowing defenses to settle.
The former Los Angeles Sol and FC Gold Pride midfielder was in excellent form in Lyon's recent UEFA Champions League triumph, and hopes are high in France that the team can sneak through to the knockouts. Even if that doesn't happen, it'll be interesting to see how Abily, who can press attackers as well as she probes defenses, does against the rest of Group A. She breezed through Arsenal's midfield in the Champions League semifinal first leg earlier this year, and will lurk on the edge of the box hoping to catch out snoozing keepers.
Kelly Smith is the star, no question, but Williams -- who had been out with a knee injury, but has been declared fit -- is crucial to England's chances of progressing. Those who saw England's win over the U.S. in London in April will know how effective her presence (dogged off the ball, serene on it) is at the back of the midfield, and how quickly she can unleash an attack with precision distribution. Coach Hope Powell is not a sentimental team selector but had no hesitation putting her straight back into the squad.
The young Whitecaps forward's recent performances have generated a considerable buzz -- not quite at Christine Sinclair 2002 levels, but given the chance, she could do things in Germany. Prepared to run at defenders, always taking up dangerous positions, she seems confident whether coming off the bench or playing from the start. Filigno is by no means a finished product and can look a bit raw compared to the sureness of Sinclair's touch, but her progress is well worth keeping an eye on.