Germany looks strong, as usual, heading into the World Cup

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PARIS (AP) — Now the Women's World Cup gets down to business.

After the gala opening match in Paris on Friday night which saw host France emerge victorious, the group stage of soccer's most prestigious tournament goes into full swing with three matches on Saturday.

Two-time World Cup champion Germany, ranked No. 2 in the world, opens its tournament on Saturday in Rennes with a match against China. Germany is riding a 12-game winning streak.

A traditional power in women's soccer, Germany has appeared in every World Cup competition. The winning team in 2007 did not concede a goal during the competition.

It's a tough Group B opener for China, which is ranked No. 16. The Steel Roses, as the team is known, have never won a World Cup, but they were runners-up in 1999 when the United States famously won on penalties after a scoreless draw at the Rose Bowl.

"It doesn't matter how strong the opponent is — we need to try our best, and be ourselves." Steel Roses captain Wu Haiyan said.

The two teams have met 30 total times, with Germany holding a 16-8-6 advantage.

The group also includes Spain and South Africa, which is making its first-ever World Cup field.

Twenty-four teams are participating in the monthlong tournament, with the championship game set for July 7 in Lyon.

NORWAY BEGINS: Norway, the 1995 World Cup winner, opens the tournament on Saturday night against Nigeria in Group A. France opened the group stage on Friday night with a 4-0 victory over South Korea in the overall tournament opener.

Norway is embarking on the World Cup without its best player, Ada Hegerberg. The 2018 FIFA Ballon d'Or winner has stepped down from the national team because of what she says are differences in the way the federation treats the men's and women's teams. She still plays club football for Lyon.

Norway is one of just four countries to have won a World Cup, along with Japan, Germany and the United States.

Nigeria, meanwhile, has been to every World Cup, and made it to the quarterfinals in 1999, but was defeated by Brazil.

COMPARISONS TO THE MEN: France cannot get past the comparisons to their men's national team, but for good reason. The French men's team won the World Cup in Russia last year, and if the women can pull out a victory on home soil, it will be the first time that a nation has simultaneously both held World Cup titles.

"We've won tonight's match but this is just one step on the road, and we have six more steps to take if we are to the go all the way with regards to our ambitions. We're playing well in the moment, but we've got to keep our feet on the ground and we need to continue working," France coach Corinne Diacre said.

RAISING THE GAME: CONCACAF, the confederation for the North American, Central American and Caribbean region, this week announced its strategy for women's soccer.

The plan follows FIFA's strategy to grow the game globally, a five-pronged initiative announced late last year.

Former Canadian goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc heads the women's division of CONCACAF. Speaking to The Associated Press at FIFA's first Women's Football Convention, LeBlanc said the confederation is working with its 41 member federations with three goals in mind: to change perceptions, build sustainable foundations and grow participation.

"We have different realities: We have 41 different countries, 41 different realities, but what's consistent is that in women's football we have space to grow in every aspect of it," LeBlanc said. "If at the end of the day, we can, through football, change the lives of young girls — and I'm an example of that — then we're doing something right."

She added: "This is just the beginning for us."


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