CHRISTIAN RADNEDGE REPORTS: FIFA will be hoping desperately that the high-intensity focus on political confusion in Zurich will be distracted by the seventh Women’s World Cup which kicks off this weekend in Canada.
The world federation has worked hard to build up women’s football which is about to confront, and almost certainly pass, its most high-visible examination to date.
If size is a yardstick then the test has already been marked positively with 24 competiting nations, eight more than in Germany in 2011 when the hosts were surprised to be left in the quarter-final shadows by Japan’s success.
Expansion has opened the gates to newcomers such as Cameroon, Costa Rica, Ivory Coast, Ecuador, Holland, Spain, Switzerland and Thailand. The Thais have benefited from an extra space made available to Asia after North Korea were banned after five of their players failed dope tests for steroids in 2011.
The worldwide audience will also reach record levels. This certainty has been duelled by a new TV rights deals in Canada with Bell Media while, south of the border, Fox Sports will handle the English language television and radio rights in the United States (Partnering its much-discussed contracts with FIFA for the men’s World Cup, of course).
As for Europe FIFA signed an agreement last December with the European Broadcasting Union for 37 countries to access all 52 matches. In the United Kingdom BBC will screen every game somewhere within its various different channels and platforms.
There is more. Canada 2015 will also to shatter social media records for the event – albeit with the continued explosion of this sphere each new tournament and event creates a record so much of the self-indulgent promotional braying is phoney.
That is not, of course, to write down the development success of the women’s game. In Europe a notable game-changer was the huge spotlight on the sport from the 2012 Olympic Games in London when 70,584 filled Wembley to see Great Britain face Brazil in the group stage and a British and Olympic record 80,203 watched the US beat Japan 2-1 in the final.
Canada 2015’s local organising committee expect to see record numbers of event-supporting spectators flooding into the host venues in Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and Moncton. They do have previous in this area, having set an attendance record at the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup hosted in the country.
Also, naturally, the Canadian Football Association plans to use such evidence of organisational efficiency and strong public support when it comes to a likely bid to host the men’s World Cup in 2026.
Thus far FIFA says ticket sales have been “strong” with individuals unable now to buy tickets for the final though some high price tickets for the Opening Match on June 6 between hosts Canada and China were slower to shift than expected.
Not that the finals have been without controversy – it would be a rare World Cup which escaped – and this concerns the use of artificial turf for all matches. That went down badly with many of the leading players. More than 50 of them banded together in last year to support a lawsuit in an Ontario tribunal court against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association on the grounds of gender discrimination.
American Abby Wambach, a former FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year, insisted: “The men would strike playing on artificial turf.” Documentation supporting the lawsuit noted that, in 1994, FIFA spent $2m in laying natural grass over artificial turf in New Jersey and Detroit for USA94.
Ultimately the legal action came too late in the day to create anything more than headlines while FIFA and the Canadians insisted that climatic conditions would have made it impossible to lay down natural grass pitches able to withstand the rigour of the tournament. In any case, as Tatjana Haenni, FIFA’s head of women’s competitions, made clear, there was no Plan B.
A resigned Wambach conceded later: “There’s nothing we could have done. We tried. We tried the legal route and we filed too late and they were just going to stall until the World Cup was over. What’s the point?”
Now her focus will be on trying to claim one of the few prizes missing from her illustrious career.
Despite being at and around the top of women’s football for two decades and winning four Olympic gold medals, the US women have not carried off the trophy since 1999 on home soil under Tony DiCicco.
Four years ago they finished runners-up in Germany after a dramatic final. After ending normal time locked at 1-1, the US thought they had won it when Wambach scored in the first period of extra-time – only for Homare Sawa to equalise with three minutes remaining.
Japan went on to win on penalties and become the first Asian winners of the Women’s World Cup.
In fact, since the inaugural tournament in 1991, the Women’s World Cup has seen only three other different winners: US (1991 and 1999), Norway (1995) and Germany (2003 and 2007).
The Germans are favourites as they are ranked No1 in the world and are the European champions, having secured their eighth UEFA title in Sweden in 2013. Fellow Europeans France rank No3 and have a strong club foundation from Lyon. As for the hosts, Canada will hope that a host nation advantage can lift them beyond their previous best of fourth in 2003.
Sweden, Brazil and England have all targeted winning the tournament outright but will find it difficult. Sweden and Brazil rely on ageing players while England have consistently lost their nerve on the world stage, having never progressed beyond the quarter-finals (1995, 2007, 2011).
At least they need not fear a ‘Lampard’ moment since Hawk-eye will provide the goal-line technology – just one more first for the imminent Women’s World Cup.