PARIS — The mega-showdown between the United States and France in the Women’s World Cup quarterfinals Friday came to fruition, for all intents and purposes, on an island on the Seine almost seven months ago.
The occasion was the women’s draw to determine the groups and paths the favorites would need to navigate in the 24-team tournament.
With his second-to-last act, Didier Deschamps, world champion coach of the French men’s team, dipped his right hand into a glass bowl and retrieved a plastic ball containing a slip of paper labeled “Canada.”
That meant the final team coming from Pot 1 would be the United States, which became the top seed in Group F and stepped onto a collision course with the presumed Group A winner, France, earlier than anyone had hoped.
Since that Dec. 8 ceremony on Ile Seguin, the top-seeded Americans and the fourth-ranked French, long considered the greatest threats to the U.S. reign, have cleared all the necessary hurdles to meet at Parc des Princes.
In anticipation of the clash, the 45,000-plus tickets were claimed months ago. The secondary market is demanding thousands of euros.
Few, if any, international women’s team sports events have generated such buzz.
“This is a game,” U.S. forward Tobin Heath said, “we have been looking forward to our whole lives in a way.”
The spectacle is not lost on the French players, who have packed stadiums and attracted record TV audiences for three weeks in their effort to win a major championship for the first time after years of disappointment.
“They have got a great trophy cabinet,” French captain Amadine Henry said of the Americans, who have won the most World Cup titles (three) and the most Olympic gold medals (four). “We want to write our own chapter in the history of the game.”
This matchup also carries significance for women’s soccer, which has made substantial strides this summer but is still seeking acceptance in traditionally male-dominated sports cultures. Outside a final, the Women’s World Cup has never featured such a consequential heavyweight encounter.
“This is a magnificent showcase piece for our sport,” U.S. Coach Jill Ellis said. “This game makes it bigger — the attention, the fanfare around it and behind it just draws more attention to it. If we can garner more support, more sponsors, more fans, more little girls going out willing to kick a soccer ball from watching this, that’s fantastic.”
The Americans have been at the forefront of women’s soccer for more than 25 years; France began to make up ground early this decade but, despite developing world-class talent, has failed to advance beyond the quarterfinals of the World Cup, Olympics or European Championship since 2012.
This, many observers believe, is France’s time and in the place to do it. At home, the French are 31-1-3 over the past 3½ years.
In the round of 16, however, Les Bleuses seemed burdened by expectations. They were taken into extra time Sunday by Brazil before prevailing, 2-1.
“There is no pressure,” French Coach Corinne Diacre said. “Quite the opposite. It’s additional motivation for us. We’re playing against the best team in the world.”
France has enjoyed success against the United States (3-4-2 in the past nine meetings). Most recently, in a home friendly in Le Havre in January, the French earned a 3-1 victory. The margin — against a U.S. team resting several regulars and in preseason form and fitness — could have been greater.
Since that winter defeat, the U.S. team has not lost. It worked out the kinks in friendlies and barreled through the group stage here before laboring to defeat Spain, 2-1, in the round of 16. The winning streak is 10, the unbeaten run 13.
U.S. expectations are soaring, but then again, they always are.
“The U.S. team lives in pressure,” Ellis said. “They are wired for this. They are built for this. You don’t come into the U.S. program and hide in the shadows. You come in and you’re in the spotlight right away. Some teams will visit pressure, but I think we live there a lot.”
Along with those expectations comes a duty to remain a beacon for the women’s game.
“Everyone kind of looks up to us whether they say they do or not,” Heath said. “There is this big curiosity about what we have done in order to become as successful as we have. In that way, there is a massive amount of respect all around, and for us we have always taken that responsibility to the next level to keep pushing the game.”
The United States has advanced to the semifinals in each of the first seven World Cups. The only time it has fallen short of the semis in major competition was at the 2016 Olympics, a penalty-kick defeat to Sweden in the quarterfinals.
“There are going to be a lot of eyes on this game,” U.S. midfielder Samantha Mewis said, “and I hope it’s a good example of how great women’s football can be.”