LYON: Led by the charismatic Megan Rapinoe, the United States are aiming to retain the women’s World Cup as they face European champions the Netherlands in the final in Lyon on Sunday.
A sell-out crowd of close to 60,000 is expected for the showpiece game of the landmark tournament, which kicks off at 1500 GMT.
The USA have lived up to their status as favourites coming into the tournament by becoming the first team ever to reach three consecutive women’s World Cup finals.
They can win the trophy for the fourth time in eight editions, four years after Carli Lloyd’s hat-trick helped them to a 5-2 win over Japan in the final in Canada.
Despite beginning their defence of the trophy with a World Cup record 13-0 victory over Thailand, they have had to fight to get through the knockout rounds, edging out Spain, hosts France and then England on their way.
“We have come through a tough road in terms of the teams we have played to get to this point, so for sure they are battle-tested, but what I love about this group is that they are locked on and still hungry,” said USA coach Jill Ellis of her team.
Rapinoe scored braces in the wins over both Spain and France before sitting out the semi-final defeat of England due to a hamstring injury. The pink-haired midfielder, who turned 34 on Friday, was confident she would be fit in time to return against the Netherlands.
“I expect to be good to go for tomorrow and I’m very excited about that opportunity,” she said at Saturday’s pre-match press conference. “I’m like a kid in a candy store right now, this is the absolute best stage.”
Rapinoe, one of only five survivors in the US squad from the 2011 final defeat against Japan, used the press conference to hit out at Fifa for scheduling this year’s final on the same day as those of the men’s Copa America and Concacaf Gold Cup, as well as urging the world game’s governing body to further increase prize money for the tournament in future.
With her spat with Donald Trump over her intended boycott of any team visit to the White House and her role in the US team’s battle with their federation for equal pay, she has been the big star of this World Cup.
However, the Netherlands are hoping to cause a major upset and strike a blow for Europe at just their second World Cup, two years after being crowned European champions on home soil.
“I think we just need to approach the game as we approach every game,” said Dutch coach Sarina Wiegman.
“We know we are playing a top-level team so we need to perform even better and we will defend the way we always do, as a team.”
Female coaches on both sides
The Dutch are sweating on the fitness of Barcelona winger Lieke Martens, who has a toe problem and was forced off at half-time in their semi-final defeat of Sweden.
“Of course, we are European champions but we want to have more and that we are standing in the final now at the World Cup, at the highest level in women’s soccer, that’s fantastic, that’s amazing,” said the midfielder Sherida Spitse.
The Netherlands have won 12 consecutive matches at major tournaments under Wiegman, and Sunday’s final will be just the second at the women’s World Cup to bring together two female coaches, after the 2003 showpiece.
While Wiegman is hoping to claim a second major tournament triumph in as many attempts, the English-born Ellis can become the first coach to win back-to-back World Cups in the men’s or women’s game since Italy’s Vittorio Pozzo in the 1930s.
“They’re European champions, that’s a very difficult thing to do, that takes a certain level of discipline and mental strength,” said Rapinoe.
“They have that idea of what it takes to win a championship more than the other teams we have faced.”
On Saturday, goals from Kosovare Asllani and Sofia Jakobsson helped Sweden beat England 2-1 in the third-place play-off in Nice.