Leaner but meaner: World Cup smaller, more competitive than '99
By SCOTT M. REID, The Orange County Register Sept. 18
CARSON, Calif. - The guest list includes Barbie, 20 queens, Maradona and at least one cover girl. Bill and Hillary might even stop by.
But make no mistake. This Women's World Cup is not going to party like it's 1999.
Welcome to the 2003 Women's World Cup, the low-budget sequel to the feel-good hit of the summer of 1999.
World Cup Lite's organizers and participants have no illusions that the 16-team, 32-match tournament that opens with Norway-France Saturday in Philadelphia and runs through the Oct. 12 final at The Home Depot Center will approach the commercial success of the 1999 Cup, which drew a record-setting 658,167 fans and earned $100 million in merchandise sales and another $100 million in corporate sponsorship.
"This World Cup is different," said U.S. defender Brandi Chastain, whose sports-bra celebration of the U.S. victory against China in the 1999 WWC final landed her on the cover of a host of major magazines. "You can't do in three months what we did in three years before '99."
With only weeks to put together the tournament after FIFA decided in May to move the Women's World Cup to the United States from China because of SARS concerns, U.S. organizers opted for a scaled-down WWC.
Only 27,000 tickets have been sold so far for the U.S. opener with Sweden on Sunday at Washington's 58,000-plus seat RFK Stadium, and a soggy post-Hurricane Isabel forecast isn't likely to help at the box office.
Izzy, however, isn't the only storm brewing over WWC '03. This week's announcement that the WUSA is suspending operation cast a dark cloud over the tournament's opening weekend and threatens to be a distraction to the U.S. title defense.
"We're sad," U.S. forward Mia Hamm said. "We're all sad. This isn't like a bus that you missed. This is something that we've all invested so much time and energy (in)."
"I think that we will be discussing it and answering questions by the media, and I think players are concerned," U.S. coach April Heinrichs said. "I think there will be a few days that we will have to deal with the black cloud, and then we will have to put it behind us."
Then the United States will have to deal with the most competitive Women's World Cup field in history. About the only thing that won't be scaled back for this tournament is the level of play. From WWC debutantes France to Ghana's Black Queens to rebuilt Canada and a dangerous North Korea side, this Cup will feature more quality teams and more world-class players than any before it.
If the 1999 tournament didn't attract enough investors to keep the WUSA in business, it did open a lot of eyes around a soccer world that had, by and large, previously shunned the women's game.
"They saw what a success it was in 1999, and now a lot of countries are funding their women's programs and putting emphasis on them and giving them a chance instead of just barely having a team," U.S. defender Kate Sobrero said.
A prime example is Canada. Disappointed with its first-round exit in 1999, Canadian Soccer Association officials hired Even Pellerud, who coached Norway to the 1995 WWC title.
"There are at least eight teams that have a chance to win the trophy," China coach Ma Liangxing said.
At the top of the list are the United States, 1999 runner-up China and European champion Germany. The United States has added promising newcomers such as midfielder Shannon Boxx and forward Abby Wambach to a group of nine returning starters from the team that won the 1999 title.
China also has plenty of familiar faces, most notably forward Sun Wen. Sun, dubbed "Maradona in a skirt" by the Chinese media, was 1999's leading scorer.
Birgit Prinz, one of the world's best strikers, will provide the firepower for Germany, while the towering Steffi Jones anchors a defense that also includes Silke Rottenberg, one of the game's top goalkeepers.
If the United States survives round-robin, first-round play against Sweden, Nigeria and North Korea in Group A, they can look forward to a quarterfinal date with either Olympic champion Norway or Brazil, WWC '99's third-place finisher.
Brazil features Katia, who scored a WUSA record 36 points for San Jose in 2002.
She has had to share the pre-tournament spotlight with new teammate Milene Domingues, the wife of Brazil World Cup hero Ronaldo. Domingues has never played a full international match for Brazil, and Confederation of Brazilian Football officials admit her place on the Women's World Cup roster is a publicity stunt.
"She's made the women's team more visible, and that's very important," the CBF's Luiz Miguel de Oliveira told reporters in Rio de Janeiro last week.
Not everybody, however, seems thrilled with Mrs. Ronaldo's high profile. Her new teammates have taken to calling the blonde former model "Barbie."
If you're looking for a tournament dark horse, look no further than north of the border. In addition to Pellerud, Canada also might boast the game's top forward combination in Charmaine Hooper, 35, and Christine Sinclair, 20. Hooper is the WUSA's second all-time leading scorer and led the league in game-winning goals. Sinclair led Portland to the 2002 NCAA championship, scoring a nation-leading 26 goals.
So many stars, such a small stage.
While some matches will be played in NFL stadiums like Philadelphia's brand- new Lincoln Financial Field and Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, other 1999 venues, including Chicago's Soldier Field, Stanford Stadium and Giants Stadium, have been replaced by much smaller, soccer-specific stadiums such as The Home Depot Center in Carson.
"It's important to show the world the future of soccer in the U.S., and that's soccer-specific stadiums," U.S. Soccer president S. Robert Contiguglia said.
But the smaller stadium plan, which also includes PGE Park, Portland's 27,000-seat minor-league baseball ground and host of the tournament semifinals, is a clear admission by U.S. Soccer and FIFA officials that they are nervous about filling larger venues, especially if the United States makes an early exit.
The Home Depot Center holds some 60,000 fewer than the 90,183 who joined then-President and Mrs. Clinton for the 1999 Women's World Cup final at the Rose Bowl.
If the United States reaches this year's final, U.S. Soccer and FIFA will have a lot of angry fans on their hands. If the United States doesn't, tournament organizers won't have to worry about how an empty Rose Bowl looks on television.
Question from Jeff: What the heck does the last paragraph mean???