Women hope tal­ent is enough

World Cup field is strong, but host na­tion is am­biva­lent and scan­dal casts shadow.

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Kevin Bax­ter

WIN­NIPEG, Canada — The deep­est World Cup field in women’s soc­cer his­tory will kick off Satur­day in Ed­mon­ton with pomp de­spite the cir­cum­stances.

Pomp be­cause the tour­na­ment, which opens with host Canada meet­ing China, is also the long­est and largest women’s World Cup. Yet the cir­cum­stances aren’t en­tirely cel­e­bra­tory, with the games start­ing four days af­ter FIFA Pres­i­dent Sepp Blat­ter an­nounced he would step down amid a widen­ing crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion of cor­rup­tion in global soc­cer’s gov­ern­ing body.

As a re­sult nei­ther Blat­ter nor his chief aide, sec­re­tary gen­eral Jerome Val­cke, showed up at the fi­nal pre­tour­na­ment news con­fer­ence in Van­cou­ver on Thurs-

day. But they were there in spirit, with re­porters pep­per­ing of­fi­cials with wave af­ter wave of ques­tions about the on­go­ing scan­dal, lead­ing FIFA me­dia re­la­tions manager Se­go­lene Valentin to step in and ask whether any­one wanted to know any­thing about the ac­tual tour­na­ment.

Ap­par­ently no one did. So it fell to Vic­tor Mon­tagliani, pres­i­dent of the Canadian Soc­cer Assn., to try to wrest the fo­cus back on the games.

“It’s a pos­i­tive thing that the first tour­na­ment af­ter this, what­ever hap­pened in the last week, is the women’s World Cup,” he said. “I think women’s foot­ball can shine some light on the dark clouds that are hang­ing over the game.”

The tour­na­ment will have to be a rous­ing suc­cess to do that. And judg­ing from the ticket sales, soc­cer fever hasn’t ex­actly gripped Canada. Two days be­fore Satur­day’s tour­na­ment opener, more than 5,000 tick­ets were un­sold. And de­mand for tick­ets has been so slow in tiny Monc­ton, the most re­mote of the six World Cup cities, prices at the 15,000seat sta­dium for a group­stage games dropped to $5 a seat.

In Win­nipeg, where next Fri­day’s game be­tween the U.S. and Swe­den sold out in March, it’s a dif­fer­ent story. Well, sort of.

The Amer­i­cans’ group­play opener Mon­day, in Win­nipeg, is also ex­pected to sell out, as have vir­tu­ally all the city’s ho­tel rooms. But the far­ther you stray from In­vestors Group Field, where the games will be played, the more the tour­na­ment fades from view.

No ban­ners. No bill­boards. And among the lo­cals, no in­ter­est.

“I didn’t even know it was hap­pen­ing un­til I saw it on Google,” said Rick Har­ri­son of Win­nipeg. “This is not re­ally a soc­cer town.”

“I think it’s a lot of peo­ple from out­side,” Nick Mo­ran, an­other lo­cal, said as he checked in guests Fri­day at a sold-out bud­get ho­tel near the air­port. “I re­ally don’t care.”

A co-worker smiled and nod­ded in agree­ment.

With the women’s tour­na­ment ex­pand­ing to 24 teams and 52 games, or­ga­niz­ers had hoped to sell 1.5 mil­lion tick­ets, al­most twice as many as were sold in Ger­many four years ago, when there were 20 fewer matches. They may have to re­sort to some fuzzy math to make that hap­pen.

Canadian soc­cer of­fi­cials said Thurs­day 920,000 tick­ets have been sold, but that’s mis­lead­ing be­cause many of the group-stage matches will be played as dou­ble­head­ers, with FIFA count­ing each per­son through the turn­stile twice even when one ticket in­cludes ad­mis­sion to both matches.

Four years ago it seemed the women’s game had passed the point where it had to fight for at­ten­tion and re­spect through cre­ative ticket-count­ing. Nearly 63 mil­lion TV view­ers in 181 coun­tries — in­clud­ing more than 14 mil­lion in the U.S. — watched Ja­pan beat the U.S. on penalty kicks in the 2011 World Cup fi­nal, FIFA said. And a Twit­ter record was also set that day with 7,196 tweets per sec­ond.

But the mo­men­tum didn’t last, leav­ing the women’s tour­na­ment lag­ging well be­hind the men’s World Cup in sev­eral ar­eas. Last sum­mer in Brazil, for ex­am­ple, FIFA paid out $406 mil­lion in prize money. The top teams in Canada will share about 3.3% of that, with the to­tal purse of $13.6 mil­lion less than what FIFA paid each of the eight men’s quar­ter­fi­nal­ists.

FIFA also in­sisted this World Cup be played en­tirely on ar­ti­fi­cial turf, some­thing it has never tried with the men’s event. More than 60 top women play­ers, led by U.S. stars Abby Wam­bach and Alex Mor­gan, chal­lenged that de­ci­sion be­fore the Hu­man Rights Tri­bunal of On­tario, charg­ing FIFA and the Canadian Soc­cer Assn. with gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion. Six months ago, af­ter FIFA and Canadian soc­cer held fast to their de­mands, the play­ers with­drew their com­plaint rather than risk de­lay­ing the World Cup.

But now, with the open­ing game just hours away, FIFA has once again steered the spot­light away from the fields and into a court­room.

“As suc­cinctly as I can put it, I see FIFA right now as the sta­dium that houses our game,” U.S. Coach Jill El­lis told re­porters be­fore her team’s first prac­tice in Win­nipeg on Wed­nes­day. “They or­ga­nize it, they put it to­gether. But in terms of what hap­pens in­side, with the teams, the play­ers, the pas­sion, that should be the fo­cal point.

“I just see FIFA as the sta­dium where we play.”

Mean­while U.S. mid­fielder Heather O’Reilly, search­ing for some­thing pos­i­tive in the scan­dal, thought she may have found a sil­ver lining to the dark clouds Mon­tagliani had said were ob­scur­ing the game.

“You know, there’s a lot of talk about soc­cer right now,” O’Reilly said. “Maybe that will get peo­ple to watch this amaz­ing tour­na­ment.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.