Of all the wonders they have seen during their trips from sea to shining sea, one vision of America remains fixed in the minds of players on China's Women's World Cup team.
"We've been in several cities here and we have seen lots of girls playing soccer on fields," said Wang Junsheng, head of the Chinese delegation. "That is incomparable with other countries."
Those girls may play in the next Women's World Cup tournament, or the one after that. Or they may play professional basketball. No matter. The success of the World Cup is likely to benefit girls on every soccer field in the U.S.--and on fields of every kind around the world.
This World Cup has been triumphant by many measures: in the performance of the home team, which will play China in Saturday's final at the Rose Bowl; in record-smashing attendance at U.S. games, and in the flood of favorable publicity the U.S. women have received as athletes and a cultural phenomenon.
Virtually ignored by NBC when they won the gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the photogenic and media-savvy U.S. women have become so cool they've made soccer hot, a feat their male counterparts have yet to pull off.
"I hoped for it, like the Americans did, when I was told which arenas they picked, and I'm happy their strategy has been successful," Karen Espelund, general secretary of the Norwegian Football Assn. said of the crowds. "You broadcast to the world full stands, cheering people, you see the interest.
"I used to point to the difference between Norway and Europe and the U.S. concerning soccer is that we have 90 or 100 years' tradition for men's soccer, and women entered soccer in the mid-'70s. You don't have that same tradition for men's soccer [in the U.S.]. It's not in the same position here, which means women's soccer is not in the same position."
The way the Women's World Cup has been marketed also may change the way sports are sold. Organizers were astonished to see tickets sold in groups of 10 or more, to parents taking their kids and their kids' friends. The unusual number of parents accompanying children has created a festive atmosphere unlike those at most events, where high ticket prices and late starts keep kids away.
"The lines are bigger at ice cream stands than at beer stands," said Sandy Briggs, executive director of the Soccer Industry Council of America. "Parents want to have an opportunity to bond with their kids, and this is it. Everybody's an expert on basketball, football and baseball, but with soccer, everybody's starting out at the same level. So few of us have been with this game more than five years. There's a sense of, 'Join the party,' not an exclusionary sense."
That same everybody's-welcome philosophy underlies soccer's appeal at the youth level, and it has opened new vistas for sports in general.
"It's a new type of audience going to the matches," Espelund said. "In Europe, we have discussed tendencies for violence in the stands. We have not had that problem in Norway, but in other countries this has happened. And one thing that will reduce those incidents is inviting more families, women and children. It will reduce the aggressiveness, and then you have to discuss the prices for families and make family ticket [packages]."
Espelund said avid interest back home in the Norwegian team, which lost to China in the semifinals and will play Brazil in the third-place game Saturday, has raised attendance at men's games. The women have drawn excellent TV ratings: The first match had an audience of 750,000 people out of 4.5 million and Norway's quarterfinal victory over Sweden, shown on tape the next day at 10 a.m., drew an audience of 500,000.
According to Espelund, the World Cup's success will be felt in Norway in many ways.
"In making the game more popular and recruiting the youngsters--that part will go up," she said. "You get the good media coverage at home and they have good role models, which is important. There is an increase in interest of local teams and in women's soccer in general, and the top league we have at home, because they will see these players playing again in their clubs."
The Chinese team is also being closely monitored here and back home.
"So far, 15 journalists have come here from China to cover the tournament," Junsheng said. "Our biggest TV station, China's central TV station, has come to broadcast the games, so it means the most influential media have come here for this tournament. The number of journalists that have come here shows the influence of women's soccer in China.
"Not only the government, but also the [soccer] federation has given its full support to this event, so this is a very good influence for China, especially with the Chinese team being in the top four of the tournament."
Brazilian forward Pretinha also expects increased interest in the women's game in her homeland, which has no women's professional league.