With the 2005 UEFA Women's Championship final tournament a year away, the picture of which seven teams will be joining England is clearing - and the excitement in the host nation is mounting even with UEFA EURO 2004™ in full swing in Portugal.
Trio join England
Three sides have already booked automatic qualification; Germany, Sweden and France. Appropriately, the holders and world champions Germany were the first to clinch their group, ironically with a victory north of the English border in Scotland on 2 May. Sweden were next eleven days later, and last week France joined them with a win in Iceland.
Only Group 2 remains unresolved, but Denmark's recent 2-1 win against Norway means victory in either of their last two games against strugglers Belgium and the Netherlands will seal their passage in September. Either Norway or Denmark will definitely be in the play-offs, in which six teams will be paired into three matches over two legs, with the winners all qualifying.
In Group 1, Italy and Finland are dead level in the race for second, but each could also qualify as one of the two best third-placed teams. Iceland will make the play-offs at least through the latter route, with Russia still able to pip them for second in Group 3, while the Czech Republic will definitely enter the play-offs as Group 4 runners-up. All issues will be resolved by 3 October, with the play-offs taking place later in the autumn.
However, in England the focus is already on Sunday 5 June 2005, when the two-week tournament kicks off. Taking place in the north west of the country, the venues will be confirmed in September, but already stadiums throughout the land have been enjoying regular friendly internationals, broadcast live on television.
Although England's form in 2003 was mixed, with two 4-0 defeats by Canada and another in Germany, they ended the year by beating arch-rivals Scotland 5-0 and form has continued to improve. In February they beat likely qualifiers Denmark 2-0 and in May overcame play-off certainties Iceland 1-0, recovering well from a 3-0 loss to Nigeria.
England coach Hope Powell is already looking forward to the finals, saying: "It is great to have qualified without having kicked a ball! It gives us the opportunity once again to compete on the top European stage, which is where we should be. I have played in Euro finals before and there's such a great buzz about playing competitively against the best players in the world."
The Football Association's recently-knighted director of football development, Sir Trevor Brooking, also believes there will be a long-term benefit. "Staging a major tournament will give the FA a great opportunity to tell young girls about their opportunities to play football and we expect that participation levels will increase again as a result of this tournament," he said.
Russia are England's next opponents on 19 August with the Dutch next up the following month. Meanwhile, uefa.com will continue to bring reports on every game in qualifying and provide comprehensive coverage of the finals next June.
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