They suf­fer for the cause

Ex­pan­sion of Women’s World Cup leads to mis­matches

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By David Whar­ton

There was much con­cern about the ex­panded field, but it could turn out all right for the women’s game in the long run.

OTTAWA — The play­ers from Ivory Coast had no more frus­tra­tion left in them.

With only a few min­utes re­main­ing on the clock, yet an­other ball sailed into their goal — this time on a free kick, a gen­tly curv­ing shot that slipped in­side the far post.

The goal keeper lay on the turf, her de­fend­ers turn­ing qui­etly, trudg­ing back to­ward mid­field. Les Ele­phantes were headed for a 10-0 loss to Ger­many in their first-ever game at the Women’s World Cup.

“Our girls dis­cov­ered some­thing to­day,” their coach, Clemen­tine Toure, said. “They dis­cov­ered a high level of com­pe­ti­tion.”

The fi­nal score un­der­lined a lin­ger­ing con­cern at this month­long event.

Soc­cer’s in­ter­na­tional gov­ern­ing body, FIFA, en­larged the field from16 to 24 this time around, with eight na­tions mak­ing their de­but on the sport’s big­gest stage.

Crit­ics doubt there are enough qual­ity women’s teams in the world to fill an

ex­panded bracket. They say lop­sided scores could tar­nish the World Cup’s rep­u­ta­tion.

That has put pres­sure on new­com­ers such as Thai­land, Ecuador and Cameroon to prove they be­long. Ivory Coast has come un­der scru­tiny as the 67th-ranked team in the world, reach­ing the draw by way of up­set vic­to­ries in re­gional qual­i­fy­ing.

Asked if her squad de­served to be in Canada, Toure an­swered sharply — “We earned our place here” — then added: “Of course there have been some wor­ries.”

Women made their World Cup de­but in 1991 with a dozen teams gath­er­ing toplay in China. Michelle Ak­ers scored in the 78th minute to give the United States a 2-1 cham­pi­onship win over Nor­way.

It took eight more years be­fore of­fi­cials be­came con­vinced the women— so long in the shadow of the men — had pro­gressed suf­fi­ciently to sup­port a 16-team field. That num­ber re­mained con­stant un­til em­bat­tled FIFA Pres­i­dent Sepp Blat­ter an­nounced an ex­pan­sion af­ter the 2011tour­na­ment.

“That’ll open up new mar­kets for women’s foot­ball,” Blat­ter said at the time. “The fi­nal will now be played to an au­di­ence on both sides of the­world, from the East where the sun rises, all the­way to the West.”

To that point, his most note­wor­thy pro­nounce­ment on the women’s game had been a 2004 com­ment in which he sug­gested the play­ers wear tighter shorts.

The de­ci­sion to ex­pand trig­gered a chicken-and-egg de­bate.

Crit­ics in­sist that low­er­ranked soc­cer pro­grams will never reach a high level of play un­less their gov­ern­ments de­vote more money to coach­ing, fa­cil­i­ties and travel. While es­tab­lished teams ar­rived in Canada more than a week in ad­vance to ac­cli­mate to con­di­tions and the time change, the Ivory Coast squad landed only four days be­fore play be­gan.

Sup­port­ers of a larger bracket ar­gue that invit­ing ad­di­tional teams to the World Cup might be part of the so­lu­tion.

“This is like a trans­fer pe­riod where the dif­fer­ence be­tween the teams will be big,” said Nora Hol­stad Berge, a vet­eran de­fender for Nor­way. “But the new teams get some more pub­lic­ity back home and that will bring the re­sources.”

An in­fu­sion of money wouldn’t be the only po­ten­tial ben­e­fit. There is an­other ar­gu­ment in fa­vor of a larger tour­na­ment.

This World Cup is giv­ing new­com­ers a chance to face pow­er­house op­po­nents who, un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances, might not even grant them an ex­hi­bi­tion game.

A new prac­tice field stands on the out­skirts of Ottawa, a sparkling rec­tan­gle of syn­thetic turf plopped down amid trees and brush. In late af­ter­noon, a bus pulls up and the Thai play­ers spill out, smil­ing, chat­ting, laugh­ing.

Their first World Cup game ended in a 4-0 loss to Nor­way, but they had rea­son to feel up­beat.

The Thais were phys­i­cally over­matched against an op­po­nent that out­ran them to loose balls and mus­cled them aside in the box. Still, they main­tained their tech­nique and played hard through the fi­nal whis­tle.

The crowd at Lansdowne Sta­dium warmed to them as un­der­dogs, cheer­ing ev­ery save, ev­ery dash down the field.

“The goal is to en­joy our­selves and try our best,” goal­keeper Wara­porn Boon­s­ing said through an in­ter­preter. “If we play that way, we don’t worry about the re­sult.”

Their coach, Nuen­gru­tai Srathong­vian, has preached this mes­sage fromthe start. Her play­ers need to see what top-flight soc­cer looks and feels like, she said. They need to en­dure tough losses for the greater good.

“The most im­por­tant thing is to trans­fer that ex­pe­ri­ence back to younger gen­er­a­tions back in Thai­land,” Srathong­vian said.

The Ivo­rians headed for Canada with a sim­i­lar at­ti­tude, but have found it harder to re­main cheer­ful.

Dur­ing the loss to topseeded Ger­many, play­ers threw their hands in the air af­ter mis­takes, yelling at of­fi­cials and each other. Two days later, at a recre­ation cen­ter in the sub­urbs, they be­gan prac­tice with a mood ev­ery bit as gloomy as the gray skies over­head.

The team formed a cir­cle at mid­field, join­ing hands, bow­ing heads to pray. Then came warmup drills, with only the thump of kicked balls to break the si­lence.

When a re­porter asked to speak with play­ers af­ter­ward, the team rep­re­sen­ta­tive shook his head, say­ing: “Right now, we work, work, work.”

The other teams mak­ing their de­but at this World Cup are Switzer­land, Spain, Costa Rica and the Nether­lands. Through the first five days of com­pe­ti­tion, the new­com­ers com­bined for a re­spectable record of two wins, four losses and two ties — though one of the vic­to­ries and both ties came against one an­other.

Things got out of hand, how­ever, when Switzer­land pounded Ecuador, 10-1, on Fri­day.

With Ivory Coast fac­ing Thai­land on Thurs­day, at least one more fledg­ling squad would record its first World Cup victory.

The Ivo­rians scored quickly on a scram­ble in front of the net, bod­ies fly­ing. Their fans, dressed in bright or­ange, banged on drums and gy­rated in cel­e­bra­tion, but things went south af­ter that.

Thai­land an­swered with three goals over the next 70 min­utes, twice on plays that ap­peared to be off­side. Though the Thais gave up a late score, Boon­s­ing made a scram­bling save in the fi­nal sec­onds to pre­serve a 3-2 victory.

“We feel thatwe are re­ally lucky,” Srathong­vian said.

For Ivory Coast, the match ended with for­ward Ange Ngues­san sprawled be­fore the op­pos­ing goal, slam­ming her fist on the turf. Not only had the team from West Africa suf­fered an­other dis­ap­point­ment, but more trou­ble lay ahead.

Next comes a Mon­day game against the Nor­we­gians, who man­aged a sur­pris­ing 1-1 tie against Ger­many. Once again, the Ivo­rian coach will re­mind her play­ers to stay pos­i­tive.

At this Women’s World Cup, with so many young teams get­ting their first taste of elite soc­cer, win­ning isn’t the only mea­sure of suc­cess.

“We’ve played against big teams, we are go­ing back with big lessons,” Toure said. “We be­lieve thatwe will be able touse those lessons.”

Chris Roussakis Euro­pean Pressphoto Agency

CYN­THIA DJOHORE of Ivory Coast reacts to a 3-2 loss to Thai­land in a battle of first-timeWorld Cup teams. Ivory Coast lost its opener to Ger­many, 10-0.

JohnWoods As­so­ci­ated Press

TEAMS SUCH AS the U.S. and Swe­den, who bat­tled to a score­less tie Fri­day, don’t fig­ure to get­much of a chal­lenge from the eightWorld Cup new­com­ers.

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