It’s now less than two weeks until the 2011 Women’s World Cup starts in Germany, and over the next couple of weeks or so we’ll be taking the time to bring you a quick run-down of all of the teams that are taking part in this year’s competition. FIFA had considered increasing the number of teams entering this year’s tournament to twenty-four, and then to twenty. The former number was rejected because it was considered that increasing to number would dilute the competition too much (critics of women’s football were arguably handed ammunition when Germany beat Argentina 11-0 in the opening match of the last tournament), whilst the latter, just as logically, was rejected as being entirely unworkable. This year’s qualification period started just over two years ago, and ended in November of last year. First up is the group featuring the hosts and defending world and European champions, Germany; Group A.

Germany (Tournament Odds – 11/10): Winners of the last two World Cups as well as the last European Championships and the host nation for this year’s showpiece event, if women’s football could be described as “coming home”, then it surely is for Germany this summer. Everywhere we look in their squad for this summer sits the mark of sheer quality. With a mixture of older and younger players, the balance between youth and experience is delicately woven through this team. At one end of the spectrum, captain Birgit Prinz has won over two hundred international caps and has scored one hundred and twenty-eight goals, and has been a record-breaker throughout her career. She was sixteen years old when she made her international debut and became the youngest player to play in a World Cup final a year later. She’s the record scorer in the history of the tournament, and has won two World Cups and five European Championships.

This sort of record cuts right the way through the team, its players and results. Thirteen of their squad were at the World Cup finals four years ago, and a further four were at the European Championships two years ago. The team hasn’t been beaten since a 3-2 loss against the United States of America in the Algarve Cup in March of last year and their last two wins, in their final two warm-up matches, saw them beat Italy and the Netherlands by five goals to nil each. What hope, then, can opposing nations take from a team in such imperious form? Well, that defeat against the USA hinted at potential defensive weakness, and the team failed to make the final of the Olympic Games tournament in 2008, when they were well beaten in the semi-finals by Brazil. On home ground, though, and with a large, boisterous crowd behind them, it is difficult to see past them winning this tournament again.

France (Tournament Odds – 25/1): Consistently amongst the top ten teams in the world, France only narrowly qualified for the finals of this summer’s tournament with a narrow aggregate win against Italy. In recent times, the French national team has struggled somewhat, failing to qualify for the 2007 World Cup, although they performed creditably in the European Championships two years ago from a group that contained Germany and another of the traditionally strong teams in women’s football, Norway. Their only previous appearance in the World Cup finals, in 2003, saw them again placed in a difficult group and they were eliminated in the first round by Brazil and Norway.

The backbone of the current French national squad comes from Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, and this is hardly surprising. Lyon have won the French championship nine times (including the last five in a row) and are the current UEFA Womens Champions League holders, having beaten Turbine Potsdam in the second ever final in this new competition They lost on penalty kicks to the same opposition the year before. They supply ten of the players in the squad of twenty-one, with a further five coming from Paris St Germain and four from Montpellier. For all the optimism that might have come about with Lyon’s club success, though, there are shortcomings in their squad. Only the veteran Hoda Lattaf of Montpellier has scored more than a handful of goals for the national team, and the six other midfielders selected for the tournament have only scored seven international goals between them. Canada and Nigeria are experienced opposition, but France have improved of late. The question is: have they improved enough?

Canada (Tournament Odds – 35/1): The mens team may continue to live very much in the shadow of their neighbours in the USA, but the Canadian womens team is long-established. Ranked by FIFA at number six in the world, Canada have won the CONCACAF Gold Cup twice and are the defending champions in North America’s national competition – the 2010 tournament also doubled up as qualification for the finals of this summer’s World Cup. On top of this, they have qualified for every World Cup apart from the first one in 1991 and will be hosting the next tournament in four years time. Once at the finals of major competitions, though, Canada have had a tendency to under-perform. They have only made the semi-finals of the World Cup once before – in 2003, when they led against Sweden with just over ten minutes to play before losing 2-1 – and they were knocked out in the group stages four years ago by Norway and Australia.

The team is built around captain Christine Sinclair. Sinclair celebrated her twenty-eighth birthday on Sunday, but has already scored one hundred and fifteen goals in one hundred and fifty-one matches for her country and has been Canada’s player of the year for the last six successive seasons . After a year player for the now-defunct American side FC Gold Pride, she has started this season with five goals in six games for Western New York Flash, where she plays alongside the star of the last World Cup, the Brazilian forward Marta. With a player of Sinclair’s calibre, considerable experience of playing in these tournament and the incentive of hosting the tournament in four years’ time, it might just be Canada’s time to step out of the shadows.

Nigeria (Tournament Odds 150/1): The 2010 African Women’s Football Championship was held in South Africa, and was also the qualification tournament for this year’s World Cup. Nigeria ended the tournament as the winners but, while their record in qualifying for the competition has been second to none (they have appeared at the finals of every Women’s World Cup), they have only got through the group stages of the World Cup once in five attempts, and when they managed that – in the USA in 1999 – they did so in spite of having been beaten 7-1 by the host nation in one of those group matches, although there was no disgrace in their narrow 4-3 defeat against Brazil in the quarter-finals. Four years ago, though, there were signs of considerable improvement, with a goalless draw against Sweden and a narrow defeat against the USA. Their 8-0 defeat at the hands of Germany in November of last year, however, may have been an indication of how far they still have to travel in order to improve upon their previous performances in at this level of competition.

Of their current squad, eight currently play in Europe – six in Sweden, one in Norway and one in Finland – whilst twelve of their squad still plays its football in Nigeria. Their experience could be enough to see them past France in their opening match, and with second place in their group very much up for grabs – it is impossible to see past Germany winning this group comfortably – all may well come down to their final group match against Canada. The Canadians may prove to step too far this time around, though, and there are no guarantees that Nigeria will be able to see France off either. Ultimately, if Nigeria are to make that great leap forward, they need to start getting through the group stages of the World Cup. They seem unlikely to break through that particular barrier this time around.

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