USA vs. France: How Women's World Cup 2011 could be game-changer
The USA vs. France match in the Women’s World Cup Wednesday marks a clash between the old guard and one of the upstart nations that could reshape the game of women's soccer.
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Even if they fall short, this tournament has laid the foundation for the changes ahead. It has marked the end of a beat-down era, when the tournament’s lesser teams essentially took to the field with “kick me” signs taped to their backs and hopes only of avoiding scorelines that would invoke the “mercy rule” in Little League Baseball.Skip to next paragraph
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Teams like France and England and Australia – previously competitive mulch to fill out the brackets – have come into their own. First-timers Equatorial Guinea arrived and managed not to look like a puppy trying to cross the interstate.
The most lopsided game in the group stage this year was 4-0. In 2007, Germany beat Argentina 11-0.
It is, in some ways, a world that the US women have wrought.
The 1999 World Cup here was a revelation, not only to the US, but to the world – sold-out stadiums, big television ratings, and women’s sports pushed to new heights.
In short, it was contagious. The virtues of Title IX, the American law that mandates equal spending on men’s and women’s sporting programs at public schools, got an international airing.
“The lessons of Title IX have filtered around the world to varying degrees in the past decade,” writes Sports Illustrated’s Ann Killion. “Countries that routinely ignored their women's teams have directed resources, energy, and a certain amount of pride toward their women's teams.”
Similarly, some of Europe’s premier professional men’s soccer clubs, flush with cash, have gotten in on the action, starting women’s teams. Ten of the 26 women on the French national team – and half of its 11 starters – come from Olympique Lyonnais, a dynasty in French men’s Ligue 1. In response, archrival Olympique Marseille (OM) started its own women’s team.
This has broken down cultural barriers to women playing soccer, says French Head Coach Bruno Bini: "A girl might say to her father, 'Papa, I want to play soccer.' He's going to respond, 'No, it isn't a sport for girls.' But if she says, 'Papa, I want to play for OM,' he will say yes because she isn't playing soccer, she is playing for OM. Even the most macho parents can do nothing about it."
That growing acceptance is why France’s Louisa Necib will be playing Wednesday. A midfielder who roams the field like a bird of prey, seeking to spring teammates free on goal with intuitive passes, her style is the spontaneous expression of an ingenious soccer soul. “There’s so much sunshine when she does touch the ball,” says Bini.
But if her father had had his way, Necib would have given up soccer for gymnastics – something more suitably feminine, he thought. Now, he calls her skill “a gift from God.”
In Germany, it has been a gift to soccer fans – proof that, 20 years after the Women’s World Cup began, the women’s game is making significant strides toward becoming the world’s game.
IN PICTURES: Power players of Women's World Cup 2011