PREVIEW-Soccer-United States chase more glory at expanded Women's World Cup

Credit: REUTERS/HANNAH MCKAY

By Ian Ransom

MELBOURNE, July 18 (Reuters) - Bigger, bolder and breaking new ground, the Women's World Cup kicks off in Australia and New Zealand on Thursday with the United States bidding to extend their golden era by winning an unprecedented third straight title.

Featuring an expanded 32-team lineup and eight nations making their debut, the first edition in the southern hemisphere will be an affirmation of how far the women's game has come since the U.S. won the inaugural 12-team tournament in China in 1991.

The 64-game showpiece gets underway on both sides of the Tasman Sea on Thursday, with New Zealand facing former champions Norway in front of a sell-out crowd at Auckland's Eden Park.

It will be a record attendance for a soccer match in the country if the expected 40,000 turn up.

On the same night, more than 80,000 are tipped to pack out Sydney's Stadium Australia for the home side's opener against newcomers Ireland, a record crowd for a women's soccer game Down Under.

Four years on from dominating in France, the top-ranked Americans remain favourites to secure a record-extending fifth World Cup triumph with a of players.

However, the landscape has changed irrevocably through the World Cup cycle, with money, talent and professionalism shifting to the sport's traditional European heartlands.

Once a cut above, the United States are now just one of a raft of nations with credible hopes of hoisting the trophy come the Sydney final on Aug. 20.

Germany, France, Sweden and European champions England all fancy their chances, while Australia's in-form 'Matildas' expect to go far under star striker Sam Kerr and with the support of an army of green-and-gold fans.

Olympic champions Canada, who upset the U.S. in the Tokyo Games semi-finals, also cannot be discounted as they look to give 40-year-old Christine Sinclair a first title at her sixth World Cup.

'JOY AND PRIDE'

While ticket sales have been slow in New Zealand, organisers have sold more than 1.25 million across the two co-hosts and healthy crowds are virtually guaranteed in sports-mad Australia.

Teams will compete for triple the prizemoney offered in 2019, which includes direct payments to players for the first time.

That will be a boost for many of the athletes, who have previously seen the proceeds of their toil go exclusively to national soccer federations.

Other players say the money is , given the $440 million prize pool for the men's World Cup.

Prizemoney for the women's tournament is $150 million, which includes $42 million allocated as "preparation money" to be distributed to clubs whose players compete at the tournament.

Basic pay remains a huge concern for many footballers at the tournament.

About a dozen of the 32 teams are still in negotiations with their federations around compensation and prizemoney, according to global players union FIFPRO.

Players will likely use the tournament as a platform to air grievances on pay and gender inequality, much as the U.S. women did in France in 2019.

Preparations have been smooth in the host countries, with each having a track record of holding major sporting events.

But global governing body FIFA were embarrassed by a standoff with broadcasters over the sale of rights, despite record viewership for France in 2019, and only recently agreed deals in the key European markets.

Though heaving crowds at European club matches have underlined growing interest in the women's game, the World Cup may also highlight a gap between the haves and have-nots.

Rich nation teams have enjoyed long training camps and playing mums have brought children on tour, with on-call nannies paid by their federations.

Players from emerging nations have complained of scant preparations, with the Jamaican women setting up crowdfunding campaigns to help cover costs.

After kick-off, though, the sport will dominate.

Megan Rapinoe, who won the Golden Boot and Golden Ball in France, is back chasing more U.S. glory at the age of 38.

Midfielder Alexia Putellas, back-to-back winner of the Women's Ballon D'Or, leads Spain's charge for a first title.

Emerging players will dream of taking their chance at an event doubling as a huge shop window for the world's top clubs.

Debutant nations like Morocco, the first Arab side to qualify for the tournament, hope their presence will open minds and break boundaries for women and girls back home.

"We will represent all Arabs in this great event that anyone hopes to participate in. We feel great joy and pride," said Morocco captain Ghizlane Chebbak.

(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

((ian.ransom@thomsonreuters.com; Follow me on Twitter https://twitter.com/MyRansomNotes; +61 3 9286 1447;))

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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