A good host should be confident and entertaining but must not completely dominate proceedings. France took notice of two of those three nuggets of advice at least, as the home nation ensured a copybook start to its Women’s World Cup campaign with a commanding performance against South Korea.
Before a capacity crowd at the Parc des Princes, a team shouldering a country’s desire for history swept aside inferior opponents with a comfortable 4-0 win.
On the morning of opening day of this anticipated tournament, the front pages of the French national newspapers had pictures of the country’s female footballers. “One more time,” wrote L’Equipe, referring to France’s victory in the men’s version of this competition last year, while Aujourd’hui en France proclaimed “on a quest for the world.”
There is much pressure on France’s women, a desire for the team to become world champions for the first time, paving the way for the country to lay claim to being the preeminent footballing country of the era – the first to simultaneously hold both the men’s and the women’s World Cup titles.
The build-up has been intense. But after the pageantry of the opening ceremony and the passionate rendition of the national anthem, and despite the presence of the country’s president, there were no visible sign of nerves from the home team.
In a cafe in the shadows of the stadium, the flags of the nations competing in a tournament described as the most important Women’s World Cup in history hung from the facades. “Vive le France,” cried a group of enthusiastic young fans, dressed in red white and blue, four hours before kick off.
But Paris has not been taken over by Women’s World Cup fever. Not yet at least. On a dreary afternoon in the heart of the French capital, neither along the banks of the Seine or in the vicinity of the Eiffel Tower was there evidence that, just five kilometers away, a 45,261 crowd would be congregating later that evening for the opening match of a global tournament.
Perhaps many events would be swallowed up in such a vast city. Many, perhaps, other than the men’s World Cup and the French Open, the second tennis grand slam of the year which is reaching its climax in Paris this weekend.
The semifinals and finals will be held in Lyon, the heart of women’s football and the home of the reigning women’s Champions League winners, and a city which is likely to be more consumed by this four-week festival of football expected to be watched on television by a billion people.
But three of the matches being played in the capital have sold out and inside the Parc des Princes on a blustery Friday evening there was no questioning the passion of the partisan crowd, which appeared to be a mix of both young and old, male and female.
They cheered at the first glimpse of their compatriots on the big screen, waiting in the bowels of the stadium before making their entrance.
VAR used for first time at Women’s World Cup
Ranked fourth in the world and with seven members of Lyon’s Champions League-winning side in the ranks, France should progress from Group A with ease and should reach the semifinals at least.
However, with this being the most competitive Women’s World Cup since its inception in 1991 it is difficult to predict whether the women in blue will match what their male counterparts did in Russia last year.
Few opponents will be more obliging over the next month as South Korea, a country competing in its third Women’s World Cup but which has only one victory at the tournament to its name. Rare was the sight of a white-shirted South Korean in the opposition half. French goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi didn’t have to make a save until the second half.
The home team went ahead in the ninth minute when Eugenie Le Sommer side-footed home captain Amandine Henry’s low cross.
Other than Bouhaddi, the entire team gathered near the corner flag in celebration. Much joy, and perhaps a touch of relief, to make such a superb start.
South Korea was too poor an opponent to make this match a spectacle. France thought it had scored a second in the 27th minute when Griedge Mbock Bathy superbly volleyed home only for VAR to disallow the goal for offside.
A chorus of boos rippled around the stadium before France went on the attack again, and again. And again.
A second goal came in the 35th minute when Wendie Renard headed home from a corner and in added time came the third. Again it was Renard rising high at the far post and producing a bullet header.
‘Entrenched in chauvinism’
South Korea improved after the break, closing down quicker and even going close to scoring when a defensive lapse allowed Lee Mina clear on goal, but a deserved goal for captain Henry late in the game lifted the crowd and ensured the match concluded with boisterous renditions of “Allez Les Bleus.” After the final whistle France showed appreciation for the home support with a lap of the stadium.
This tournament doesn’t need a home triumph for it to be successful, but having the home nation in the latter stages would add to the sense of joie de vivre to a competition which, according to FIFA, is “smashing records.”
Nearly a million tickets have been sold and never before has there been such a wealth of talent or as many title contenders and, perhaps, never before has women’s football had such a platform.
But the golden hue surrounding France 2019 – the sell-out crowds, the record television audiences – should not mask the inequalities that still exist.
There is continued criticism of FIFA, the sport’s governing body, over the prize money on offer at this tournament.
Raised from $15 million to $30 million, the overall prize fund has doubled since 2015, but for the 2018 men’s World Cup the pot was $400 million, with winners France taking home $38 million.
Former USA goalkeeper Hope Solo told BBC Sport earlier this week that the disparity illustrated that FIFA was “entrenched in chauvinism.”
In CNN Sport’s “World Cup Continental” series, the thread which entwined female footballers around the world was that the battle for recognition and equality is ongoing.
Yet, not only is there inequality between men’s and women’s teams, but there is also a gulf between the countries competing in France.
Much remains to be improved upon, but this was the perfect start to a tournament which promises much.