Wednesday 28 September 2016, 08:44

Asian dominance on the line as Middle East makes history

There is a natural tendency to view youth World Cups simply as mini-versions of their senior equivalents. The FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup has, though, spent its short history establishing an identity all of its own.

USA and Germany, the heavyweights who have dominated the female game and its major tournaments, will attest ruefully to this competition's refusal to adhere to the senior script. Indeed, not only have neither of these behemoths yet been able to lay their hands on the U-17 trophy, the Americans - like Brazil - failed to even qualify two years ago, while the Germans finished bottom of their group.

There has instead been a distinctly Asian flavour to this event, with France the sole exception on a winners' list that already includes Korea DPR, Korea Republic and Japan. The Japanese arrive at Jordan 2016 as holders, having broken all manner of records en route to lifting the trophy in Costa Rica two years ago, and undoubtedly rank among the favourites once again.

“To win successive championships is our goal,” coach Naoki Kusunose recently. “I think we have a responsibility to play a good style of game as defending champions. It is difficult to choose specific players, but you should look out for our patient defence and high tactical awareness."

Challengers and debutantsThose aforementioned giants are back, though, and both USA and Germany arrive as champions of their respective continents, eager to end this Asian stranglehold. Spain, finalists two years ago, also return with the aim of going one better, while South American queens Venezuela boast the most experienced squad in Jordan, with eight veterans of their surprise run to the 2014 semi-finals. That octet includes the last edition's top scorer, Deyna Castellanos - one of several potential stars.

Add to the mix the likes of Brazil, Canada, Korea DPR, Nigeria and England - back for the first time since 2008 - and all the ingredients are there for a tournament in keeping with the U-17 Women's World Cup's open and unpredictable history.

There are also a couple of first-timers in the shape of Cameroon and Jordan, and the latter will need to buck a depressing historical trend if they are to progress to the knockout rounds. None of the U-17 Women's World Cup's four host nations have thus far managed this feat, after all, and the two most recent - Azerbaijan and Costa Rica - lost all three of their group matches. Masterminding an end to that run is the challenge that has been handed to English coach Robbie Johnson and, despite the apparent challenges, he has spoken positively about his squad's potential.

“Jordan’s U-17 women’s team are extremely enthusiastic and the players are keen to learn,” he told "The girls who’ve been selected must, while working together with the backroom staff, give all they’ve got to be at their best, in terms of their physical and technical preparation. That will ensure that we can compete.”

A lasting legacyThe tournament does, of course, have wider significance for Jordan than the performance of Johnson's team. Indeed, as the first FIFA women's event to be held in the Middle East, the hope is that it will prove hugely important for the game's development in the region as a whole. The Jordanians, having been pioneers since launching their women's football programme in 2005, are certainly aiming to shine a light for girls and women throughout the Middle East and beyond.

As the country's monarch, Her Majesty Queen Rania, said. “To have young girls playing sports, and playing football specifically, can do so much to change attitudes and perceptions as to how society perceives girls and young women. If a Jordanian woman wants to play football, I say ‘go for it’. Because you are a role model for society, for changing traditional roles and challenging the negative perception regarding women. And football is the healthiest and the most inspiring way to do all this.”

Effecting societal change may be a grand ambition, but it is one shared by FIFA and a Local Organising Committee (LOC) headed up by Samar Nassar. "This showpiece will be a turning point in the history of women’s football in Jordan and will attract more attention to the sport," said Nassar, who leads an LOC staff comprised 75 per cent of women.

"When young girls are on the pitch here, they are not just kicking the ball for themselves or their countries, but for all the girls out there - for women’s empowerment and for promoting gender equality.”

There is, therefore, plenty at stake - both on and off the pitch - at Jordan 2016. With a world title and women's empowerment to fight for, this will be another U-17 Women's World Cup well worth supporting.

Teams & SectionsGroup A: Jordan, Spain, Mexico, New Zealand Group B: Venezuela, Germany, Cameroon, Canada Group C: Nigeria, Brazil, England, Korea DPR Group D: USA, Paraguay, Ghana, Japan

StadiumsAmman International Stadium, Amman King Abdullah II International Stadium, Amman Al Hassan International Stadium, Irbid Prince Mohammed International Stadium, Al Zarqa