Women’s World Cup 2023: The tournament will begin in Australia and New Zealand

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The waiting is almost over. The biggest Fifa Women’s World Cup – featuring European champions England and debutants the Republic of Ireland – will finally get under way on Thursday.

Australia and New Zealand are co-hosting the ninth edition, which for the first time will feature 32 nations including defending world champions the United States.

It is the first Women’s World Cup with two co-hosts.

New Zealand launch the tournament against Norway at Eden Park (08:00 BST kick-off) before Australia play the Republic of Ireland at Stadium Australia, Sydney, on the same day (11:00 kick-off).

But what should have been a day of celebration of women’s sport was overshadowed by an early morning shooting in Auckland, which left two people plus the gunman dead, and six others injured.

Supporters getting ready to head to a fan park near the waterfront, which was close to the incident, expressed their shock and sadness at the news.

Fifa said the tournament would proceed as normal and organisers hope the opening two games will attract an aggregate crowd of 100,000 fans.

It is on course to be the most-watched Women’s World Cup, with more than 1.3 million tickets bought in advance for the 64 matches at 10 venues across nine cities.

Organisers are targeting a record two billion television viewers for the 2023 edition, a figure that would double the audience that watched the 2019 World Cup in France.

“The future is women. Thanks to the fans for supporting what will be the greatest Fifa Women’s World Cup ever,” said Fifa president Gianni Infantino.

As well as the Republic of Ireland, seven other nations are making their debuts at this World Cup – Vietnam, Zambia, Haiti, Morocco, Panama, the Philippines and Portugal.

While the United States – who are chasing a fifth world title – are the number one side in the world, Zambia lie 77th and are the lowest ranked team at the tournament.

The final takes place at Stadium Australia on 20 August (11:00 kick-off).

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World Cup of firsts

This Women’s World Cup has been labelled the biggest women’s sports event ever to be staged. One thing is certain: the tournament will be huge in terms of showcasing – and growing – women’s football around the world.

For the first time, Fifa will directly pay players at the Women’s World Cup. Amounts increase for the deeper that teams progress, ranging from about £24,000 per player for the group stage to just over £200,000 allotted to each champion.

These are significant sums at a time when the average salary in the women’s game worldwide is £11,000, according to last year’s Fifa benchmarking report. Overall prize money has increased from £23m in 2019 to £84m.

In another first, referees will announce the reasoning for video assistant referee (VAR) decisions to fans in stadiums and television audiences via a microphone and loudspeakers.

As at the men’s World Cup in Qatar last year, referees are also encouraged to stop time-wasting, so added time is likely to be lengthy while long goal celebrations will also extend stoppages.

Meanwhile, captains will be permitted to wear armbands with messages about inclusion, gender equality and peace after rainbow armbands were not allowed at the men’s tournament last year.

None of the eight available armbands, however, explicitly advocate for LGBTQ+ inclusion.

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Who will win this Women’s World Cup?

The last time the United States lost a World Cup game was in 2011 when they were defeated on penalties by Japan in the final in Frankfurt, Germany.

Since then they have won 13 out of 14 on the global stage and they head into this edition chasing a record third successive success following triumphs in 2015 and 2019.

However, boss Jill Ellis has stepped down since guiding the Stars and Stripes to World Cup glory in France in 2019, while two-time World Cup and Olympic gold medal winner Carli Lloyd has ended her international career.

With 14 of the 23 players appearing at their first World Cup, and Megan Rapinoe – regarded as a genuine American icon – announcing this will be her fourth and final World Cup, will there be a changing of the guard at the top of women’s football?

England’s unforgettable Euro 2022 success has rightly placed them in conversations when it comes to predicting World Cup favourites.

However, injuries have hit hard and the Lionesses are without several key players including Beth Mead, who was named Euro 2022’s best player and won the Golden Boot award given to the tournament’s top scorer.

Spain have the best women’s player in the world in Alexia Putellas, while two-time winners Germany have a strong and experienced squad.

France are led by experienced manager Herve Renard, while co-hosts Australia will be backed by large crowds and have Chelsea’s prolific forward Sam Kerr.

Controversial build-up

Olympic champions Canada are also hoping to go deep in the tournament, but they are one of several nations whose World Cup preparations have been disrupted by domestic issues.

Spain and France have also made headlines in recent months as rows between players and federations have escalated, although France’s issues appear to have been resolved with the appointment of Renard.

Jamaica – and even Nigeria’s head coach – have taken action or called out their federations over issues such as pay, resources and personnel.

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England’s players are frustrated with the Football Association over its stance on performance-related bonuses.

Meanwhile, the South Africa squad selected by coach Desiree Ellis did not participate in their final warm-up fixture on home soil before leaving for the World Cup, meaning a back-up team, which included a 13-year-old girl, was hastily assembled to face Botswana in order to avoid a fine.

Six World Cups and counting

With 32 teams at this edition, – up from 24 in 2019 and 16 as recently as 2011 – there are 736 players at this World Cup.

Three of those players are appearing at the tournament for a sixth time – Marta (Brazil), Onome Ebi (Nigeria) and Christine Sinclair (Canada).

Having turned 40 in May, defender Ebi is the oldest player in Australia and New Zealand.

But she still trails Brazil’s Formiga, who holds the record as the oldest player to take part in the competition at 41 years and 112 days in 2019.

Meanwhile, there are a number of players who are barely out of high school.

South Korea’s Casey Phair, 16, will become the youngest ever player at a Women’s World Cup if she appears in either of her country’s first two group matches against Colombia or Morocco.

A growing injury list

The United States, Netherlands, England, France and Canada are among the nations who will be without key players due to injury.

As well as captain Becky Sauerbrunn (foot), the United States’ injury list includes forward Mallory Swanson (torn patellar tendon), midfielder Sam Mewis (knee) and forward Christen Press (knee).

Vivianne Miedema, the all-time Netherlands leading scorer, is out with anterior cruciate ligament damage – the same injury that has prevented England’s Leah Williamson and Mead from taking part.

Attacking midfielder Fran Kirby (knee) is also missing for the Lionesses.

France are deprived of midfielder Amandine Henry (calf), five-time Champions League winner Delphine Cascarino (ACL) and striker Marie-Antoinette Katoto (ACL).

Another player ruled out because of an ACL injury is Canada forward Janine Beckie.

The BBC is your destination for coverage 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

With 33 live games on BBC TV and iPlayer, alongside coverage of the key matches on BBC Radio 5 Live and BBC Sounds, football fans can enjoy the Australia and New Zealand Women’s World Cup wherever they are.

With first pick of the last-16 stage, the BBC will show England’s first knockout game if they make it past the group stage.

The BBC is the only place you can watch both semi-finals on 15-16 August. The final, on Sunday, 20 August, will be broadcast by both the BBC and ITV.