Football: Hamm homes in on her World Cup quest

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MIA HAMM already owns an Olympic gold medal and has filmed a TV commercial with the basketball player Michael Jordan. Now the world's most famous female footballer wants to go one better - and lead the United States to a World Cup title on home turf.

The third Women's World Cup, which will be played at eight venues over 22 days, kicks off today with double headers at the Giants Stadium across the Hudson river from New York in New Jersey, and at San Jose in California.

Hamm, who recently set a world record with her 108th international goal, leads a veteran US team that are favoured to win their second World Cup after taking the inaugural title in 1991 in China. "As long as we stay healthy and play our best, I think we're going to do well," the US coach, Tony DiCicco, said. "We know the challenges are going to be great."

The Americans, who open the tournament against Denmark in New Jersey today, are one of arguably only five teams in the 16-nation field with a realistic chance of taking a victory lap around the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, after the final on 10 July.

The other four serious contenders are China, Germany, much-improved Brazil and the defending champions, Norway.

The United States, who finished third in the 1995 Cup, boasts a team filled with veterans of past World Cups and the 1996 Olympics, and are expected to have little or no problem with their Group A opponents Denmark, Nigeria and North Korea. Barring a major upset, the host nation will probably face either Germany or Brazil in the semi-final in Palo Alto, California, avoiding the most dangerous potential opponents until the final.

Norway and the Olympic silver medallists, China, are expected to progress to a semi-final meeting in Boston. The formidable Chinese, the fittest team in the competition, have beaten the United States twice this year.

Mexico, North Korea, Russia and Ghana will make their Women's World Cup debuts. Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Australia, Canada and Nigeria are the other outsiders.

In today's other opening-day matches, Brazil play Mexico in the Giants Stadium, while China open against Sweden and Canada face Japan at San Jose State University's Spartan Stadium.