Women's World Cup kicks off in Germany

Organizers hope the Women's World Cup soccer tournament will increase interest in the sport, but more than half of Germans questioned in a recent poll could not name a single player on the national team.

Thomas Peter/Reuters
A general view shows the Olympic stadium before the opening ceremony of the Women's World Cup in Berlin, Sunday.

When host country Germany faces Canada tonight in the second match of the 2011 Women’s World Cup, they'll be playing in front of a sold-out crowd of 70,000 at Berlin’s Olympic stadium.

World soccer's governing body FIFA and Germany's national soccer associations hope that the sixth edition of the tournament will boost the popularity of a sport that is constantly – and often unfavorably – compared to the men’s version.

Sixteen teams compete over a course of four weeks. Reigning champion Germany and the US, both two-time winners of the cup, are favorites to win the trophy again, but there are a number of other contenders.

Brazil lays claim to Marta, who many consider the world's best player. Norway, which took the title in 1995, has played a solid qualifying round, and everyone agrees that the two Asian teams – Japan and North Korea – could pose a serious threat.

Canada have yet to beat the Germans in nine previous games, but coach Carolina Morace is optimistic for the opening match. “The Germans could suffer stage fright, particularly given all the supporters who’ll be there to encourage them,” Ms. Morace told reporters. “If we play well in the opening match, anything is possible.”

The Canadian coach may have a point when she reinterprets the home advantage as a possible burden.

German team faces pressure to perform

Germany’s female soccer players are expected to repeat nothing less than the “summer fairly-tale of 2006” when the country hosted the men’s cup and the whole nation was entranced by the performance of the German team – and by the newly-found ability to exhibit national pride without restraint.

Suddenly, it was perfectly OK to fix the German flag to the car antenna or to paint one’s face black, red, and yellow – acts that previously would have been frowned upon as an embarrassing display of a nationalism, unbecoming for a country with Germany’s violent past.

The German women's squad may find it hard to raise this kind of excitement.

Name one player, just one

In a nation-wide poll this week more than half of those questioned could not name a single player on the national team.

This must be frustrating for someone like record forward Birgit Prinz, who has played 212 caps for Germany (her debut was in 1994 against Canada), scored 128 goals, and is taking part in her fifth World Cup. Compare that to her counterpart on the men’s team, Miroslav Klose, who is one year her junior, has played 109 caps, and scored 61 goals. Mr. Klose has an estimated annual income of 7 million euros ($10 million), Ms. Prinz makes about 130,000 euros ($185,000).

“We hope that this tournament gives the decisive boost for women soccer’s professionalization,” says Steffi Jones, former German player and currently president of the 2011 World Cup’s organization committee. “I want female players to be able to live off their sport, and not be forced to have a day job.”

This may be far off in a country that does not have a professional women soccer’s league yet.

Until 1970, Germany’s soccer association explicitly banned women from playing, arguing that soccer “as a combative sport is fundamentally alien to the female nature,” and that the “display of the female body violates etiquette and decency.”

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