Author Topic: Another World Cup for Germany? Soccer studies the female factor  (Read 1231 times)

Offline David

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Another World Cup for Germany? Soccer studies the female factor
« on: October 29, 2007, 06:03:35 PM »
There should be no suspense in Zurich on Tuesday when FIFA names the host of the 2014 World Cup. Brazil, soccer's indispensable nation, is the one official candidate and has already received a positive report from FIFA's perhaps overoptimistic inspection committee.

The only actual contest in Zurich involves the right to stage the next Women's World Cup in 2011. An initial pool of five candidates has been narrowed down to two: Canada and Germany.

Don't take this as proof of some sort of paradigm shift. Despite sharp increases in participation among girls, soccer, for now and the foreseeable future, remains a male-dominated endeavor in global terms.

According to an extensive survey conducted by FIFA in 2006, less than 10 percent of the world's 265 million players are female. There are also no high-profile women's professional leagues.

In contrast, the men's World Cup remains the closest thing the planet has to a collective sports moment. The only reason Brazil is the lone candidate for 2014 is because FIFA and its president, Sepp Blatter, have yet to revoke the system of continental rotation. For now, it is still South America's turn, and the five-time champion Brazil has stepped forward even if its infrastructure sometimes bears a closer resemblance to backward.

But the women are unquestionably becoming more of a factor and more of a pleasure to watch in action, as was made clear in the World Cup in China this year. Though the men's game is much deeper and faster, what matters to spectators is relative speed. Women against women, the product in China looked just fine, aside from the odd 11-0 blowout. And the skills in evidence - from the ball-handling of Brazil's young star, Marta, to the goalkeeping of Germany's Nadine Angerer - were sometimes stunning.

"What a player like Marta can do for the sport is phenomenal," said Sunil Gulati, the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation. Yet for all Marta's undeniable flair, it was still Angerer and the Germans who defended their World Cup title without surrendering a goal in six matches. It was a balanced, thoroughly convincing performance, and despite Canada's solid credentials, it would be quite a surprise if FIFA did not acknowledge Germany by granting it the opportunity to follow up on the successful 2006 men's World Cup with the women's version.

The other argument is continental. Of the five Women's World Cups so far, only one was in Europe, and that was in Sweden in 1995. The German public definitely seems open to the concept. Viewing figures for last month's Women's World Cup final in Germany peaked at about 12 million, which is comparable to what the German men attract for a World Cup match.

There were 15,000 packed into a city square in Frankfurt to greet the German women upon their return. Chancellor Angela Merkel has filmed a message to be included in the presentation Tuesday to FIFA's executive board in Zurich.

"Getting the World Cup here is not just important for German soccer or German women's soccer, it is important for Germany," said Heike Ullrich, the head of women's soccer for the German Football Association. "I think the most important thing is we've reached the minds of the German people. We've overcome the argument that football was just for boys. We are over that."

That argument held sway in 1955, when officials from the German Football Association blocked women from forming a league on the grounds that the public display of their bodies was immoral.

But German women took up the game in earnest in the 1970s, and there has been a boom in recent years, with the number of registered female players rising to nearly 900,000 last year from about 600,000 in 1994.

"In some clubs, there are problems, because the girls are knocking on the door and saying, 'We'd like to kick' and the infrastructure isn't there yet to handle them," Ullrich said. "But it's fantastic what's going on in our country. For girls up to age 16, we've doubled the number of teams in the last five years. That's why we say we now have soccer moms in Germany, too."

But, in truth, most of them are still waiting on the sidelines for their sons to finish practice. There were 5.4 million German males registered to play soccer last year, more than five times the number of females.

The figures in other developed soccer nations are even less balanced. Consider Spain, with 629,000 registered males in 2006 and just 24,000 registered females. Consider France, with 1.74 million registered males and 49,000 registered females. Consider, above all, Brazil, with 2.1 million registered males and 27,000 females.

If not for Brazil's strong desire to organize the men's World Cup, it is hard to imagine that its soccer officials would have agreed with Blatter's strong suggestion that they help launch a women's professional league and soon.

Even the United States, with its deeply entrenched dual-gender soccer culture and an estimated eight million female players, could not make money from a league of the women's own. The WUSA was launched on the strength of the American team that became media darlings by winning the World Cup at home in 1999. But the league lasted just three seasons, folding in 2003 despite stars like Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain.

German stars like Birgit Prinz returned home and kept their club careers alive in the women's Bundesliga. But plans have been announced to start another, smaller-scale professional league in the United States in 2009.

"Look, it's impossible to replicate what happened in the summer of 1999," Gulati said. "Personalities and stars like Mia don't come along every few years, but I think we'll have other players that will get to be known by the American public.

"Everyone has to understand what the model sets out to try to do in terms of numbers and attendance," he added. "And those expectations are much more modest and therefore the cash infusions needed are going to be much more modest than was the case in the WUSA."

As recent developments have made clear, the sport no longer needs a scintillating American team to produce a compelling Women's World Cup. Germany and Brazil carried the weight quite nicely in China as the United States settled for third place and a goalkeeper controversy that ultimately cost coach Greg Ryan his job.

"It's going to be much harder to be dominant in the sense of winning gold medal after gold medal or world championship after world championship with the level of investment that other countries have made and the catch-up that has been done," Gulati said. "What we've got to do is continually monitor and accelerate our programs to try and stay in that battle."

Meanwhile, staging a World Cup should only make the German women stronger.