For the past few weeks, soccer has held an unusually prominent place in U.S. headlines, although for scandal rather than action on the pitch. All the talk about bribes and politics and the squalid doings of world soccer’s ruling body, FIFA, obscured a happier soccer story: Over the weekend in Canada, the elite women of the world took to the field to start the largest and longest Women’s World Cup ever held — 52 matches among 24 teams.
And the American women are, as always, a top contender to take it all.
The relative lack of attention paid to the Women’s World Cup is no surprise. While it will take some time to see if the resignation of FIFA President Sepp Blatter has any effect on the organization’s alleged shenanigans, one thing is sure: His downfall is nothing but good for the women’s game. He has never been what one would call supportive.
The popularity of women’s soccer has grown under his tenure, but not for reasons he ever appeared to understand. “Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball,” he famously said in 2004. “They could, for example, have tighter shorts.”
American superstar Alex Morgan says Blatter did not know who she was at the FIFA Player of the Year awards in 2013, where she was being honored as one of the top three in the world. Teammate Abby Wambach led a gender discrimination suit against FIFA over the issue of artificial turf, something Blatter and his cronies basically ignored until the women dropped the suit.
Fans of the women’s game are hoping that the tournament itself will become the focus in the coming weeks. But the lead-up to the Women’s World Cup has always paled in comparison to the frenzy that surrounds the men, a sign of women’s lack of status in international sport. Some, however, see the next month as an opportunity for FIFA to deflect attention onto the field.
“In a strange way, the scandal can work to the benefit of the WWC,” American soccer legend Alexi Lalas, an analyst for Fox Sports’ coverage of the tournament, told me. “It is the perfect distraction and shield and it can come to represent the antithesis of the scandal. If I were FIFA, I would be steering and focusing everything and everyone towards the event. No one will forget the events of the last week, but if FIFA does it right, the WWC can at least provide a temporary escape.”
In a strange twist of events, then, maybe the scandal will finally allow the women to get their due. “FIFA is in the middle of a scandal of its own design, but if there is one thing that was made clear after the so-called turf debate, it’s that the women’s game is increasingly powerful, with or without FIFA,” said Canadian soccer writer Keph Senett. “This popularity and fan loyalty is the fruits of women’s labors — the players — not the organization. FIFA’s comeuppance is just in time. It makes way for the fans to focus on top-notch sport played expertly by passionate professionals.”
This kind of star power is certainly true of the U.S. squad, which comes into the tournament as reigning Olympic champion. With Morgan and Wambach on the cover of Sports Illustrated, alongside teammates Carli Lloyd and Sydney Leroux, the hopes of the U.S. capturing its first crown since 1999 loom large and very possible. (Let’s not talk about that heartrending shootout defeat to Japan four years ago.)
The U.S. starts its march toward the July 5 final in Group D, squaring off Monday against Australia in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and then Sweden (June 12, Winnipeg) and Nigeria (June 16, Vancouver, British Columbia). If the team doesn’t win its group — and Australia’s Lisa de Vanna and Nigeria’s Asisat Oshoala are going to do their best to prevent it — the road to an unprecedented third title will be more difficult, with powerful opponents such as Brazil and Japan waiting in the wings, and two-time champ Germany, ranked No. 1, looming ever larger, having crushed Ivory Coast in its opening match Sunday, a brutal 10-0.
The Americans have their work cut out for them. While 15 members of the squad are World Cup vets, many of the stars, including Wambach and Morgan, have been fighting injuries of late. But there is hope that newbies such as Leroux, a power forward who has averaged the most goals in the fewest minutes of any U.S. women’s national team member ever, will rise to the challenge.
Last summer, Americans finally appeared to have caught World Cup fever: ESPN saw record-breaking numbers of viewers for U.S. games — some 24.7 million watched the U.S. men’s team square off against Portugal — and fans found a legitimate rock star in goalie Tim Howard. While Fox Sports has seen heavy demand for advertising space, the women’s tournament still poses the intriguing question: Will a chance for international glory be enough to get people to watch the women?