FRANKFURT, Germany — They dominated from the opening day of the three-week Women's World Cup. Produced sparkling play with a fresh, confident attitude for the lead in Group A.
The Germans? No, the French.
Not Birgit Prinz, the grand dame of World Cup soccer? No, playmaker Louisa Necib of France with the silken touch.
The first week of the tournament has shown the host team won't have a cakewalk to a third straight title. The sellout home crowd may help but can't do the work on the field. Instead, neighboring France has stolen Germany's thunder.
They meet in their final group game on Tuesday with the easiest ride to the final at stake.
Group A was always going to be the toughest of the four opening-round groups, with three top seven teams vying for two places.
Yet, while seventh-ranked France toyed with Canada, which is one place higher, in a 4-0 drubbing on Thursday, second-ranked Germany was troubled all the way by No. 27-ranked Nigeria before escaping with a 1-0 win.
None was more shocked by the turn of events than Prinz. Angry at being substituted early in the second half two games in a row, she slapped hands of teammates in raw anger rather than joy and remained stone-faced even in victory.
"I cannot be happy. How could you be if you are replaced after 50 minutes," Prinz said.
Together with Brazil's Marta, Prinz was to be one of the stars of this World Cup. One goal will turn her into the first woman to score in five World Cups. She already leads the career list with 14 World Cup goals.
But she has been a shadow of her former self. Laborious with her moves, slow with dribbles and predictable with passes, she has done the team no favors in the 2-1 opening win against Canada nor against Nigeria. Prinz has gone six national team games without a goal.
Germany coach Silvia Neid even refused to commit to Prinz starting the game against France.
Even worse for Germany was the acknowledgment that the players could be unsettled by rough play. Nigeria needed a win to stay in the tournament and fought for every ball — and then some.
"I've never seen our team come out of the dressing room with so many knocks and tapes," Neid said.
And the coach knew the intensity would not change in the coming games. "They want to give their utmost against the home favorites."
However, France has made the difference with skill and flair so far. Les Bleus handled Nigeria better than Germany and had one of those blissful games against Canada, when everything they tried also worked, with great goals to show for it.Comment on this story
It is almost as if coach Bruno Bini refused to believe it. He did not even want to fully celebrate after the 4-0 win over Canada because Germany still had to play. An odd combination of results and mathematics could make qualification for the quarters less than a certainty.
With the German win, they were immediately in the clear. Now all eyes will be on Necib, with her light touch and probing passes. With her skills, she could easily take over from Prinz as the dominant player in the game.
And all the momentum is with her.
"I can easily imagine that the French are on cloud nine now," said German defender Linda Bresonik.