PARIS • The Women's World Cup kicks off today amid unprecedented attention as hosts France take on South Korea in Paris.
"It's going to be a remarkable World Cup. The level of competition four years on from the last one has exponentially increased," said Jill Ellis, coach of the United States team, the reigning champions.
"Different teams are now rising and it's going to be a very open World Cup and we're excited to go out there and attack it."
Interest from the public is high with both semi-finals and the final, all to be played at the 59,000-capacity Stade de Lyon, sold out as well as the opening game at the Parc des Princes. The cheapest group-game tickets cost just €9 (S$13.80).
The United States are the queens of the game after winning the World Cup thrice and the Olympics four times and that experience is clearly visible in their current line-up.
At the end of May, Fifa calculated that the US had collected 1,893 caps between them and included eight players with at least 100 international appearances. Among them Carli Lloyd has 274 caps, Alex Morgan 163 and Becky Sauerbrunn 158.
For France, the key members of the Lyon team who have won four straight Champions League titles - Sarah Bouhaddi, Wendie Renard, Amel Majri, Amandine Henry and Eugenie le Sommer - are fast becoming French celebrities.
Germany, who can boast another Lyon star in Dzsenifer Marozsan, have won two World Cups and eight European Championships.
However, the power of the Americans and Germans is set to be challenged now that some of the other traditional football powers, who for years did not take women's football seriously, are catching up.
England and France, ranked third and fourth in the world, arrive with genuine hopes of winning the title. Spain, the Netherlands and Italy are all in the top 15, with the Dutch reigning European champions.
"Aside from USA, France and the Netherlands, teams like Australia, Canada, Sweden and Norway are also playing very well," German coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg told broadcaster ARD. "It will be a very tight tournament."
Matches at the World Cup (36 of 52) to be played at stadiums in France with a capacity smaller than 30,000.
Megan Rapinoe, co-captain of the US team, believes that France could pose a big challenge.
"I think they are, in my opinion, the favourites for sure," said the midfielder. "They are a fantastic team, they're going to have obviously a home crowd with them. I feel like all the pressure is on them."
Yet, as they prepared to try to emulate the men's team and win the World Cup, France's women's team received a reminder that they are still not quite equal.
They had to move out of their rooms at the French football federation's training base in Clairefontaine, when the men's squad arrived last week to prepare for two Euro 2020 qualifiers.
The US team, whose popularity in their homeland has been the financial motor that has driven women's football, arrive embroiled in a legal dispute with their federation.
They want to be paid the same as the US men's team, who remain also-rans internationally.
Ballon D'Or winner Ada Hegerberg, who scored a hat-trick for Lyon in the Champions League final, will be absent in France.
She is boycotting the national team even though Norway pays women and men internationals the same, because she believes more needs to be done to improve the way women footballers are treated.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS