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Call This Hat Trick for the World Cup

Americans, Norwegians and Brazilians favored for relocated women's tournament, but will sports fans in the U.S. notice?

September 14, 2003|From Associated Press

Right in the middle of fall football and baseball pennant races, the Women's World Cup returns to a far different sports landscape this time around.

U.S. victories and a shirt-stripping celebration might not be enough for the Cup to repeat the success of its 1999 tournament, which turned into a celebration of all women's sports.

Will anyone pay attention when the Cup begins Saturday? Will it become another front-page phenomenon capped by a third championship for the United States?

Nobody is quite sure. When FIFA, soccer's international governing body, set the fall dates for the tournament, it was to be played in China. But the SARS outbreak forced FIFA to move the event, and the only viable bid came from the United States.

So, with NFL and college quarterbacks chucking and pitchers throwing, what chance do the women have to make an impact?

"Every World Cup is awesome," says U.S. captain Julie Foudy, playing in her fourth Cup -- as many as have been staged. "The chance to have it here again is extra special, and I think you'll see it will be a huge success."

Expecting this tournament to equal '99 is unfair. Four years ago, the World Cup marked the end of a three-year building plan and was held in June and July, with little sports competition in the United States.

It caught on big back then, thanks greatly to the pioneering efforts of the American players and such moments as Brandi Chastain's much-replayed celebration, when she ripped off her jersey after scoring the championship-winning goal.

The level of play this year certainly will be stronger, in part because of the three years players have spent sharpening their skills in the WUSA, the league spawned by the '99 Cup. The recognition factor is much higher, too.

Foudy, Chastain, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Briana Scurry and Tiffeny Milbrett are among the conquering heroines familiar to nearly every soccer-playing kid, and probably their parents.

That's who figures to be in the stands in Philadelphia when the tournament begins next Saturday with Norway playing France and Nigeria against North Korea. The next day at RFK Stadium, the United States opens against Sweden, and Brazil takes on South Korea.

Other sites for the three-week tournament are Columbus, Ohio; Portland, Ore.; Foxboro, Mass.; and Carson, where the final will be held Oct. 12 in the Home Depot Center, which is fast becoming the unofficial home for U.S. national teams.

All games will be part of doubleheaders except the third-place match and the final.

Some stadium capacities will be reduced, and Foudy hopes many of the ballparks will be full. But she's not concerned, because even in empty arenas, the Americans will be under heavy pressure to produce, to win a third World Cup.

"Americans respond to big events, they love big events," she says. "Even if it is something like this, with the tournament coming to the United States at the last minute, they respond.

"I don't worry about attendance numbers, because it is not something I can control. None of the players can, but sure, we want it to draw well."

But Chastain has another view.

"I think, unlike '99, people are ready for this World Cup," she says, noting how the buzz four years ago began when the tournament did. "They have their TVs set to the time of the games, they know what's coming, and they're excited.

"We didn't have that in '99. It was an unusual situation with the first-ever women's event on that large of a scale. We're looking forward to this tournament, I think, with even more anticipation in terms of people who will be watching on television."

ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC will share the broadcast duties, but with so many games up against football, the ratings could be minuscule.

And they will be invisible if the Americans don't advance. The top-ranked U.S. team is in the most difficult first-round group, with Sweden (ranked fifth), North Korea (seventh) and Nigeria. So this will be no cruise through Washington, Philadelphia and Columbus on the way to the quarterfinals.

"It's going to be a fight every single game," Hamm says. "To be the best you have to play the best and we understand that."

Group B has two top contenders in Brazil and Norway, which won the 1995 championship and beat the United States for the 2000 Olympics gold medal. Group C is led by Germany and rapidly improving Canada. Group D has China, which lost in a penalty-kick shootout to the Americans before a sold-out Rose Bowl in the '99 final.

Among the best international players are Norway's Dagny Mellgren; Sweden's Hanna Ljungberg; China's Sun Wen; Canada's Charmaine Hooper; Germany's Maren Meinert, the WUSA's MVP this season; France's Marinette Pichon, who won the WUSA award in 2002; and Brazil's Sissi.

Goalkeeping is stronger than ever, too, with Canada's Karina LeBlanc and South Korea's Kim Jung-mi capable of being the great equalizers.

The Americans, Brazilians, Canadians, Germans, French and Swedes figure to press the issue offensively, which should make for entertaining games. Too often in the men's event, coaches pull back, satisfied with first-round ties that usually are dull, conservative affairs.

This World Cup also will be a test for U.S. coach April Heinrichs, a former teammate of many of the American veterans in their final World Cup.

Nothing less than another championship is expected now that the Americans are the hosts again.

"We've got experience, wisdom and composure," Heinrichs says confidently. "We've got speed, strength, and athleticism. You will also see players who bring us energy and enthusiasm.

"We're going to play to win. And we're going to play so Americans can be proud."

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