Host France opens Women's World Cup with victory

PARIS - The run-up to the Women’s World Cup was more about off-field issues than tactical discussion, about gender equality and FIFA’s feet-dragging rather than the expanding number of contenders. Players largely drove the conversation, eager to engage in topics that will define soccer’s female future.

But as a bundled-up crowd gathered Friday at wind-whipped and sold-out Parc des Princes, the narrative pivoted to the monthlong, 52-game competition across nine cities. It turned to a sport that, though still tilted heavily toward the men, seems ready to embrace the women’s growing brand.

And it rotated toward the French national team, which confronted past disappointment and the pressure of winning at home while seeking to match the success of their celebrated male counterparts a year ago in Russia. With French President Emmanuel Macron among the 45,261 in attendance, Les Bleus demonstrated their capacity and ambition with a 4-0 victory over South Korea.

It took 45 coldblooded minutes for France to show it’s ready to exorcise demons and unseat the top-ranked U.S. as world champions. Wendie Renard, who at 6-foot-2 is the tallest of the 552 players in the tournament, scored twice on - what else? - headers.

The performance was more comprehensive than the score suggested (21-3 on shots, 13-1 on corner kicks), though the Koreans are far below the standard of the French, Americans and Germans.

The United States is widely expected to enjoy its own soft group opener Tuesday against Thailand in Reims.

Barring any surprises, the French and Americans will collide in a June 28 quarterfinal in Paris.

The opening day of the tournament began with FIFA President Gianni Infantino, speaking here at the first Women’s Football Convention, pledging $500 million over four years for women’s soccer development.

“We are moving. We are progressing. We are trying,” Infantino said in the face of criticism that the sport’s governing body has dragged its feet on the women’s game. Shortcomings still exist in prize money, bonuses and funding in individual national federations around the world.

Mia Hamm, the retired U.S. superstar, addressed the forum as well, saying: “This (women’s) game has a place. This game is marketable. This game is beautiful. You just need to make the investment.”

By evening, FIFA commitments and women’s soccer growth gave way to the start of the eighth edition of the Women’s World Cup, one that promises to showcase emerging teams and certified powers.

France has ascended to a top-tier program in recent years, benefiting from world-class talent developed by Europe’s best women’s pro outfit, Olympique Lyonnais. Seven players from that club started Friday.

Expectations have risen, and though third-ranked Les Bleus has played winning and entertaining soccer, they have yet to advance to the championship match of the World Cup, Olympics or European Championship.

On the eve of the opener, French coach Corinne Diacre acknowledged “we have the expectations. We have got the (national soccer federation), we’ve got the French republic, the president of the French republic ... ?That’s not my problem during the World Cup. We need to think about winning games and winning the World Cup.”

The first steps come in Group A, a cluster that isn’t expected to provide much resistance. South Korea, ranked No. 14 and appearing in its third World Cup, was chasing shadows all night.

The halftime margin was three, but the gap between the teams was worthy of five or six.

French service from the flanks and on set pieces was too much for the Koreans, who were fortunate an apparent goal by Griedge Mbock Bathy midway through the first half was overturned by video replay.

There was no questioning the first goal as captain Amandine Henry stormed the right side in the ninth minute and crossed into the path of Eugenie Le Sommer for a rising, seven-yard finish.

Late in the half, center back Renard used her height advantage and a quick cut inside to drive Gaetane Thiney’s corner kick into the low left corner.

On the last sequence of the half, Renard won another aerial clash with Hwang Boram, who yielded more than six inches. On Amel Majri’s corner kick, Renard stepped back and directed a 10-yard header into the left side.

The outcome had been settled by intermission. The French did not create as many high-quality opportunities in the second half, and in the 77th minute, leaked South Korea’s only clear chance of the game.

Additional goals did not materialize until Henry played a combination with Le Sommer in the 85th minute and stung a lovely, ?22-yard shot into the far side of the net.

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