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Randy Harvey

Far-Flung Foes Fail to Draw Big Crowds

September 22, 2003|Randy Harvey

Creating a beach on the tennis courts at the Home Depot Center for the volleyball tournament that ended Sunday afternoon was easy. It's been done before, including in a parking lot in Las Vegas. Attracting a crowd to a women's soccer doubleheader that doesn't include Mia Hamm or Brandi Chastain, that's hard.

Organizers of the first-round games Sunday night at Carson in the Women's World Cup were disappointed with the peak attendance of 10,027, which was the smallest of any venue in the tournament's first weekend.

But, considering the opening-night draw here of Australia versus Russia and China versus Ghana, well, who could have expected more?

Applauding California's diversity, Gov. Gray Davis said last week, "... [W]e have people from every planet on the Earth in this state. We have the sons and daughters of every -- of people from every planet -- of every country on Earth."

But we really don't have that many people here from the planet of Ghana, and although we have more people here from the planets of Australia, China and Russia, they don't necessarily follow the women's soccer team from the old country.

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Many of the fans who did come to the games at Home Depot Center bought their tickets so that they could eventually see the U.S. team, which played earlier Sunday on the other side of the country in Washington.

According to organizers, about 12,000 people bought ticket packages for all six games in Carson in order to be guaranteed seats for the Oct. 12 final at the Home Depot Center.

They are anticipating that the United States will be playing for the championship. No doubt their confidence was bolstered by the Americans' 3-1 victory at RFK Stadium over a good Swedish team, despite an injury to Chastain that will prevent her from playing in at least the next two games.

I like the NFL, but I doubt anyone who watched a football game on television Sunday morning instead of the soccer match can name any player who displayed more artistry than U.S. forward Hamm. Or more toughness than Swedish forward Hanna Ljungberg, who took a licking but kept on kicking.

Hamm, 31, reconfirmed her status as the Pele of women's soccer. She didn't score, but she looked as sharp as ever, assisting on all three goals, the first one when she one-timed a pass through the legs of a Swedish defender and onto the foot of Kristine Lilly.

Hamm and Lilly are two of the four U.S. players -- Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett are the others -- who played in the first women's world championship in 1991, starting to claim their niche in the nation's consciousness with an opening-game victory over, coincidentally, Sweden.

They peaked with their victory over China in the final of the 1999 World Cup in front of 90,125 at the Rose Bowl. Even if they repeat, they won't attract that kind of crowd, not even for the championship game.

That is certain because the Home Depot Center holds only 27,500. The stadium was a conservative choice for the final by organizers because they feared they couldn't come close to filling the Rose Bowl again, especially if the Americans weren't in the game.

That had less to do with the team's popularity than with the timing of the tournament. With this one coming in the fall instead of midsummer, the U.S. women have to share the sports landscape with football and the most dramatic weeks of the baseball season. They drew 34,144 Sunday in Washington, which is respectable on a day when the Redskins were playing but not phenomenal.

Yet, they remain a phenomenon, female athletes who are more acclaimed and better known in the United States than the men in the sport.

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I think it was Don Shula who once shrugged off a loss by saying, "One billion people in China don't care."

That's the difference in pro football and women's soccer. In women's soccer, 1 billion people in China do care.

A good many of them no doubt would have attended the 2003 Women's World Cup scheduled for China, hoping to see their team avenge the loss to the United States four years ago, but the tournament was moved because of the SARS outbreak.

A small but exuberant group of Chinese fans in Carson tried to make the team feel at home. They also provided a World Cup atmosphere for the second game after a more subdued opener, won by Russia, 2-1, over Australia in front of a mere 8,500.

They were thrilled by Sun Wen, who is the Mia Hamm of China. Like Hamm, Sun, 30, has announced that this is her last World Cup. She tied for the lead in the last one in scoring and was named most valuable player. She, also like Hamm, has critics who say she since has lost a step, but Sun was imposing, scoring in the 29th minute.

That, however, was the only goal the Chinese scored in a 1-0 victory over Ghana, a team they beat, 7-0, in 1999.

Ghana undoubtedly has improved, but it also appears China is not as formidable as it was four years ago. The Chinese like to say that a journey of 10,000 miles begins with one step, but you have to believe they were looking for a bigger first step here.

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Randy Harvey can be reached at randy.harvey@latimes.com.

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