Berlin: World Cup fever has gripped Germany as the stars of the women`s game prepare to chase the ultimate prize in football in the 2011 FIFA Women`s World Cup which kicks off here next Saturday.
Brazil`s five-time Player of the Year Marta and all-time World Cup top scorer Birgit Prinz of Germany are among the big names who will headline the 51-million-euro extravaganza which takes place over three weeks in nine cities.
Sixteen teams are battling for the top prize with over 670,000 tickets of the one million on offer sold.
Five years after the successful hosting of the men`s event, expectations are high that the German women can bring glory to the host nation and capture an unprecedented third successive title.
The tournament kicks off with Germany taking on CONCACAF champions Canada in Berlin`s 75,000-seater Olympic Stadium on June 26 with the final set for Frankfurt on July 17.
Germany will be joined by the United States, Australia, North Korea, Japan, France, Norway, England, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, Brazil, and Colombia.
Interest in women`s football is higher in Germany than in many other countries, and coverage for this year`s edition looks set to exceed all previous tournaments being broadcast to more than 200 countries worldwide.
"The World Cup in Germany is going to be spectacular," said Brazil striker Cristiane.
"I played there and I know just how much passion they have for the sport and the structure they have at their disposal.
"The tickets for our opening game are already almost sold out. It`s going to be the best World Cup ever," added the former Turbine Potsdam and Wolfsburg player.
Ridiculed in the past particularly for the poor quality of goalkeeping the women`s game has developed since the first World Cup in 1991 largely thanks to the technically sophisticated styles of players such as Marta, Prinz and former US star Mia Hamm.
The United States and Germany have traditionally dominated the tournament winning two titles each with Norway taking the honours in 1995.
Once again Germany and the USA, the two-time Olympic gold medalists, are among the favourites as Colombia and Equatorial Guinea make their World Cup debuts.
Germany start in Group A with Canada, Nigeria and France.
The USA, the top ranked team, have bounced back from their struggle through qualifying by winning the Algarve Cup in Portugal, and are in Group C with North Korea, Colombia and Sweden.
Japan, New Zealand, Mexico and England face off in Group B, while Group D matches 2007 runners-up Brazil with Asian champions Australia, Norway and Equatorial Guinea.
Hamm, who earned 275 caps in her 17-year career, believes Germany will be difficult to beat.
"I think they`re really looking forward not only to putting on a great show, but also to competing at the highest level in front of their home fans," said Hamm.
"They`re very committed to the women`s side of the game, but they`re also the team everybody else will be trying to beat."
Group matches run until July 6 with the top two teams advancing to the knockout rounds starting three days later.