Points proven, Women's World Cup heads into grand finale

The hearts and minds aspect of this tournament has been a runaway success but now it is all about winning and losing.

Television audience records have been smashed, global media coverage has been unprecedented and the quality of football has won over many sceptics -- now the Women's World Cup heads into its final week, the business end of the tournament.

United States, the defending champion and three-time World Cup winner, remains the favourite to lift the trophy in Lyon on Sunday but first it must deal with a confident England side in Tuesday's semifinal.

In Wednesday's game, European champion Netherlands takes on a Sweden side which is on a high after upsetting Olympic champion Germany in Saturday's quarterfinal.

READ |  Blackstenius stars again as Sweden beats Germany 2-1 to reach semifinal

On Sunday, fans of all four teams began to arrive in Lyon, bringing their colour and bonhomie to the central French city.

The Dutch turned Valenciennes orange on Saturday, while thousands of Americans had poured into Paris for Friday's win over the host. England has had unprecedented levels of travelling support and Sweden's status as one of the pioneer nations in women's football means it never lacks for backing.

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Netherlands has sealed a first-ever World Cup semifinal berth and also its first-ever Olympic Games place.   -  Getty Images

 

What fills veterans of the women's game with such confidence for the future is the sight of so many young female supporters in the crowds, school-age players who idolise the international footballers.

READ | Neville's Lionesses breeze into Women's World Cup semi

There is a family atmosphere but also a new generation of women fans, such as Italy's well-organised and vocal ultras.

It is a far cry from the days when attendance was limited to pockets of friends and families of the players alongside curious locals.

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Sweden pulled off an upset on Saturday in Rennes as it came from behind to defeat Germany for the first time since 1995, and seal its semifinal clash against Netherlands.   -  Getty Images

 

The hearts and minds aspect of this tournament has been a runaway success but now it is all about winning and losing.

There have been many coaches and players, no longer here in France, who have described their exits from the competition as part of a learning process, a development plan, an episode in the growth of the women's game in their countries and with good reason.

READ | Netherlands makes history with second-half headers

Italy, beaten by the Dutch on Saturday and playing in its first World Cup for 20 years, was certainly justified in taking such a view. The Spanish know they are on an upward curve and some of the emerging nations will have benefited from their experiences.

But, as the tears of French and German players following their eliminations in the last eight showed, such perspective is not for everyone.

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England has reached the semifinals of the Women’s World Cup in back-to-back editions of the tournament (also 2015); it has never reached the final four in the competition before this.   -  Getty Images

 

"This England team is ready to win now," said coach Phil Neville, adding that defeat to the U.S. would represent failure for a team which has fallen at the semifinal stage in its last two major tournaments.

"The only way for us to go back home is as winners."

England brushed aside a traditionally solid opponent, Norway, in its quarter-final, winning 3-0, and its performance left the Americans, who beat France 2-1 thanks to a pair of goals from Megan Rapinoe, under no illusions about the task that faces them.

READ | USA's Rapinoe at the double as France bows out

England was super clinical the other night, Rapinoe said. "We have absolutely our work cut out for us."

The match-up that will capture the most attention will be the direct confrontation between Rapinoe, on the American left wing, and Lucy Bronze, England's powerful and gifted right wing-back whose thundering strike against Norway was a highlight of the tournament.

Netherlands is in its maiden World Cup semifinal and will look to its in-form striker Vivienne Miedema, a 22-year-old who has scored 61 goals in 80 games for her country and is one of three members of the side playing in England for Arsenal.

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USA has now won its last 10 matches at the Women’s World Cup, equalling the longest run of wins in the tournament’s history set by Norway between 1995 and 1999.   -  Getty Images

 

But Sweden showed against Germany that its direct, counter-attacking style is highly effective and their coach Peter Gerhardsson is not satisfied yet.

“We've talked about the possibilities here to go far and win every game,” he said.

“There's not a single cell in our body that is content with this. We're going to go for it."