Russia face Brazil in intriguing opener
As proceedings got underway, a little girl dressed as a referee appeared on stage to blow the starting whistle for the eagerly-anticipated draw. There was a tangible sense of excitement among representatives of competing nations as they waited to see what fate had in store for them at this summer's tournament, which is to be played in Moscow and St. Petersburg between 17 August and 3 September.
Those fortunate enough to be in attendance were treated to a Strauss waltz accompanied by a classical dance number performed by members of the Gzhel Dance Ensemble, later followed by the official speeches. With the crowd beginning to get restless, the organisers pulled an ace from their sleeve by releasing a series of enormous brightly coloured footballs, decorated with the flags of each participating nation. Having recaptured the audience's attention, it was time for Gzhel to reappear on stage, this time with a modern, high-tempo routine, filling the stage with a blur of music and movement.
As the spectacular musical display drew to a close, the moment everyone had been waiting for finally arrived. Jim Brown, FIFA's Director of Competitions, invited no fewer than four Olympic champions on to the stage as neutral participants in the all-important draw. Elena Zamolodchikova, double Olympic champion in rhythmic gymnastics, Elena Azarosa, two-time Olympic champion in synchronised swimming, Karina Aznavuryan, winner of two Olympic golds in fencing, and European, World and Olympic rhythmic gymnastic champion Alina Kabaeva were all welcomed with thunderous applause.
Luck of the draw
There could be little doubt that Group A caused the biggest stir, the news that tournament hosts and reigning European champions Russia would take on Brazil in their opening game sending shockwaves around the room. The audience quickly recovered from the initial surprise to burst into a spontaneous round of encouraging applause for the home side, who could be seen shifting nervously in their seats. Everyone present agreed that there could be no better game to kick off the competition.
The surprises did not end there either. Australia, representing the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) for the first time at a world championship, were drawn in the same group as neighbours New Zealand, who had inherited the Oceania title previously dominated by the Young Matildas. An ironic quirk of fate saw to it that, having avoided each other in qualifying, the two sides' paths would cross at the biggest event in women's football this year. Kiwi coach John Herdman and Aussie representative Jo Sanders could not avoid a wry smile and a cheeky wink as the teams were announced.
Group C will be the only group containing two teams from the same confederation (Europe), with defending champions Germany taking on Switzerland, Mexico and Korea DPR. The talented German and Swiss players know each other all too well, having battled it out at the UEFA U-19 Championship, where both sides booked their places at Russia. On that occasion, Switzerland came off decidedly worse, crashing to a 5-2 defeat on Hungarian soil. "Germany again
I hope that things turn out differently this time around!" joked Swiss coach Claudio Taddei.
The Mexicans, meanwhile, refused to be intimidated, with their representatives confidently predicting that they intend to be the surprise package at this year's tournament.
Recently crowned Asian champions China PR
, beaten by Germany in the final at Thailand 2004, open their campaign against tournament first-timers Finland, who have made astonishing progress in recent years. Fellow Group B rivals Canada, runners-up in the CONCACAF qualifying tournament, will play their first match against a yet-to-be-confirmed African side.
The remaining African team will take their place in Group D, where they face a formidable opening tie against the mighty USA. The Americans are desperate to repeat their title success at Canada 2002 after the disappointment of finishing third in Thailand. Meanwhile, group opponents France are out to atone for a previous failure this time around, having failed to make the quarter-final stage on their last appearance on the world stage over on Canadian soil.
The additional qualifying place awarded to South America has given first-time qualifiers Argentina the chance to take Group D by storm and prove that Brazil are not the only side in the region capable of quality football.
Aside from the identity of the two African sides set to compete on Russian soil, the path to success is now that much clearer for those teams gunning for glory this summer. The next three months could prove to be a vital opportunity to prepare valuable scouting reports on future opponents, with coaches working overtime to ensure their sides arrive in the best possible shape to be crowned queens of women's youth football.