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GRAHAME L. JONES / ON SOCCER

Quality of play in Women's World Cup takes the sport further

International tournaments began less than 20 years ago, but variety of styles and forms finely executed by teams highlight the glorious new chapter in what was already a rich and colorful history.

July 17, 2011|Grahame L. Jones | On Soccer
  • U.S. forward Abby Wambach, left, and Japan defender Saki Kumagai chase after the ball during Japan's victory in the Women's World Cup final on Sunday.
U.S. forward Abby Wambach, left, and Japan defender Saki Kumagai chase… (Christof Stache / AFP/Getty…)

Where next for women's soccer?

And quickly, before the Neanderthals out there grunt and yell, "Who cares?" let us state here loudly and unequivocally that it does matter.

It matters to every little girl who has sat in front of a television set these last few weeks and marveled at the skills of, say, Louisa Necib or Lotta Schelin or Lauren Cheney.

It matters to those fans all across the U.S. who watched and tried to will Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan and Hope Solo to victory Sunday.

It matters to every player worldwide who looked at Homare Sawa and Ayumi Kaihori and Aya Miyama up there on the victory stand in Frankfurt, Germany, and said, "That could be me one day."

It matters to the future Martas and Kelly Smiths and Maribel Dominguezes of the world. They want there to be a future. They want to know that down the road they too could be chasing a world championship or an Olympic gold medal.

No one is suggesting that women's soccer is on the wane. The opposite is true. But remember, only 20 years ago, there was no Women's World Cup; only 15 years ago, there was no women's Olympic soccer tournament.

It is a sport still in its relative infancy but already with a rich and colorful history, with a glorious chapter now added.

The most encouraging thing about the sixth Women's World Cup that ended Sunday night after a 32-game run in nine German cities was the quality of play in the tournament.

April Heinrichs, the battling American midfielder who won a world championship with the U.S. in 1991 and coached the U.S. team that finished third in 2003, said that she had "watched some of the best football I've ever seen" in the last three weeks in Germany.

This was from a woman who had played alongside some of the sport's legends — Carin Jennings, Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly — on some of the most talented U.S. teams ever.

"More than anything else, there's been a real variety of formations and playing styles," Heinrichs told FIFA.com. "Take the Japanese, with their outstanding passing game, and the French, who almost without exception moved the ball with just two touches per player. Then there's the U.S. and its dynamic, direct style of play."

The quality of play has vastly improved, perhaps because of better coaching, perhaps because more countries now take the sport seriously and commit resources to it, perhaps because more people now care, perhaps because parity among teams has sharpened the competition.

And it will continue to improve, according to Germany's 2003 World Cup-winning coach, Tina Theune.

"I think it will be increasingly important to develop players capable of acting and reacting at pace," Theune told FIFA.com. "Physical strength simply isn't enough anymore.

"Intelligent football will be the deciding factor, by which I mean the details such as a good first touch and anticipation, but also skills such as dealing confidently with difficult situations and initiating good moves.

"This will all be increasingly important. Games are now changed in fractions of seconds, and that makes the difference."

Japan's victory Sunday brought a rueful nod of recognition from Pia Sundhage, the U.S. team's Swedish coach.

"There is something to be said about the way Japan plays," Sundhage said. "They are comfortable with the ball even when they are behind, and that kind of thing is good for women's football."

There might, unfortunately, be a dip in quality next time around. In fact, there almost certainly will be because FIFA, in its wisdom, has decided to make the Women's World Cup a 24-team event, diluting the field in the process.

With the exception of perhaps China, Denmark and Italy, which countries could possibly add stature to the tournament? From 16 to 20 would have been a more sensible increase. But, no.

"Now is the right time to go from 16 to 24 teams, and that'll open new markets for women's football," said Joseph "Sepp" Blatter, the president of FIFA and a man big on marketing and money.

Sadly, no World Cup, men's or women's, can escape a visitation by Blatter, whose only known contribution to the women's game was his 2004 suggestion that the players wear "tighter shorts."

Speaking Saturday in Frankfurt, Blatter managed to exceed even his own high standards for inanity.

"Women's football has become more global," he said. "The final will now be played to an audience on both sides of the world, from the East where the sun rises, all the way to the West."

Regrettably, Blatter's own sun shows no sign of setting. Far better to listen to Bruno Bini, the coach who led France to fourth place and who, unlike Blatter, puts some thought into his words.

"It's been a fantastic adventure, and what I'll take away from it ahead of everything else is the interest our run created in women's football back home," Bini said. "People were able to identify with this French team; you could almost describe it as a sociological phenomenon.

"In these tough times, seeing this squad — made up of 21 everyday girls and an unremarkable coach — give their all and run their hearts out on the pitch seemed to really affect people."

The 2011 Women's World Cup is history now, and the way that it affected people will be seen in tournaments to come.

Roll on, Canada 2015.

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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