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Women’s World Cup preview Group A: Playing at home a motivator for France

Women’s World Cup preview Group A: Playing at home a motivator for France
France midfielder Kadidiatou Diani, center, celebrates with teammates after scoring her team's second goal during an international friendly match against China on May 31. (Franck Fife / AFP/Getty Images)

Kadidiatou Diani is familiar with the Women’s World Cup schedule so she knows what lies ahead for France following Friday’s opener with South Korea in Paris.

If everything goes according to form and the fourth-ranked French win their group, as they are heavily favored to do, they would play a third-place team in the round of 16. They then could face the defending champion Americans in the quarterfinals before a sellout pro-French crowd in Paris’ Parc des Princes stadium in the biggest women’s game in the country’s history.

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“I’ve thought about it,” said Diani, sitting in a players’ lounge at the suburban training ground of her club team, Paris Saint-Germain. “I’ve seen the draw. But I haven’t circled the date on the calendar. I’m looking forward to being in the World Cup and that’s it.”

France certainly goes into the tournament riding a wave of momentum, having won 10 of its last 11 matches dating to last September -- including a 3-1 victory over the U.S. in January, the Americans’ only loss in their last 38 games.

“To win a World Cup you need to beat every team,” Diani, who scored twice in the win over the U.S., said through an interpreter. “So yeah it gave us confidence.”

So does playing at home, where the expectations are high following the victory of the men’s team in last summer’s World Cup in Russia. No country has held both the men’s and women’s World Cup titles at the same time.

“That will be an additional motivation,” said Diani, who thought of this summer’s tournament as she watched president Emmanuel Macron kiss French players on the head during last July’s trophy presentation in Moscow.

“I don’t know how many World Cups I will play in in my career so of course I am asking myself ‘why not me?’ We are hoping we can bring back the Cup to France.”

She quickly smiled and corrected herself.

“Well, actually, it will already be in France.”

The goal, then, is to keep it there.

Group A

France

World ranking: 4

How qualified: Host nation

Last World Cup: 2015, quarterfinals

Best World Cup finish: Fourth place, 2011

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Key players: F Kadidiatou Diani, F Eugenie Le Sommer, MF Amandine Henry, D Wendie Renard

Outlook: Don’t be persuaded by France’s world ranking or its loss in the quarterfinals four years ago. With an experienced roster featuring five players with more than 100 caps, this might be the best team in the tournament. France has made it to the quarterfinals of four consecutive major tournaments since 2013 and it will get an added boost in this one by playing at home less than a year after its men’s team won its World Cup. No country has held both the men’s and women’s titles at the same time. As the host country, France didn’t undergo the demands of a qualifying campaign but proved its mettle by stunning the U.S. in January behind two goals from Kadidiatou Diani.

South Korea

World ranking: 14

How qualified: Fifth place, 2018 Asian Cup

Last World Cup: 2015, round of 16

Best World Cup finish: Round of 16, 2015

Key players: F Ji So-yun, MF Cho So-hyun, D Jang Sel-gi, D Kim Hye-ri

Outlook: South Korea won the first World Cup match in its history four years ago and advanced to the round of 16, proof that its soccer program is making progress. It might be tough to replicate that this year given the quality of the group. But the Koreans do have a young, dynamic core led by Chelsea forward Ji So-yun -- who made her international debut at 15 and 13 years later is the country’s all-time scoring leader -- and West Ham midfielder Cho So-hyun, who has played a record 115 games for the national team.

Norway

World ranking: 12

How qualified: Winner, UEFA qualification group 3

Last World Cup: 2015, round of 16

Best World Cup finish: Champion, 1995

Key players: D Maren Mjelde, MF Caroline Hansen, F Isabell Herlovsen, MF Kristine Minde

Outlook: The 1995 world champion, Norway made it at least as far as the quarterfinals in each of the first six World Cups. But it failed to get past the round of 16 of the last two tournaments, didn’t win a game or score a goal in the most recent European championship and will playing without Ada Hegerberg, the top player in the world last year who quit the national team over a dispute with the Norwegian federation. The roster is a blend of youth – goalkeeper Ingrid Hjelmseth is the only player older than 30 – and experience, with seven players boasting more than 70 caps. Coach Martin Sjogren, a Swede who replaced Even Pellerud in 2016, played at the University of North Florida.

Nigeria

World ranking: 38

How qualified: Winner, 2018 Africa Cup of Nations

Last World Cup: 2015, group stage

Best World Cup finish: Quarterfinals, 1999

Key players: F Asisat Oshoala, F Ini-Abasi Umotong, F Desire Oparanozie, MF Ngozi Okobi-Okeoghene

Outlook: Nigeria, an 11-time African champion, is the only country from the continent to have played in every World Cup. Nigeria is fast, physical and can score – it collected 22 goals in three games in last month’s West African Football Union tournament. It is led by attacker Asisat Oshoala, a three-time African player of the year. But that speed and talent doesn’t always match up well when Nigeria steps outside Africa; in seven games against non-African national teams this year, the Super Falcons lost four times and were shut out twice. The second group game with South Korea will likely decide which team stands the best chance of moving on.

Schedule

June 7: France vs. South Korea

June 8: Norway vs. Nigeria

June 12: Nigeria vs. South Korea, France vs. Norway

June 17: Nigeria vs. France, South Korea vs. Norway

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