Finally, soccer is about to make some headlines not for its scandalous corruption, but for the action on the field.
The Women’s World Cup begins Saturday and continues through July 5, with 24 countries taking part in an expanded format. All 52 games will be televised on the Fox family of channels. The U.S. women’s national soccer team — a veteran squad that many observers think is capable of winning the tourney — promises to play a prominent role.
The U.S. plays its first game at 6:30 p.m. Monday against Australia. The Americans are talent-loaded, as usual, but they are a bit of an aging bunch and at least one core member, high-scoring forward/striker Alex Morgan, is injured and probably will see limited time.
The ongoing FIFA bribery and racketeering scandal will be discussed in Fox’s coverage as the newsworthiness merits, Fox Sports executive David Neal told Sports Illustrated’s Planet Futbol this week. But he also promised it won’t overshadow coverage of the athletes themselves.
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Some players have publicly noted that there is a disconnect of sorts between the FIFA organization and the participants in its women’s tournament. FIFA has traditionally dedicated only a tiny fraction of its ample financial resources to promote the women’s game, they say.
And among many followers of women’s soccer, there is little love lost for FIFA president Sepp Blatter, the leader of the sport’s governing body who resigned under pressure this week. Many of those followers haven’t forgotten that, in 2004, Blatter suggested female soccer players should wear tighter shorts to attract more fans.
What followed was days of backlash from offended women and their fans across the globe. Norwegian player Solveig Gulbrandsen responded in a British newspaper: “If I wanted to wear a bikini I would have chosen to play beach volleyball.”
Back to the on-field action. Here are some of the challenges the U.S. team is likely to face during the next month:
Other countries got game
The United States is perceived as a dominant team in global women’s soccer, but it hasn’t won the tournament since 1999.
In some ways, the U.S. pioneered the women’s sport by dramatically expanding youth clubs and high school and college soccer programs in the 1980s. Meanwhile, some soccer-crazy countries, such as Brazil, strongly discouraged and, in some cases, didn’t allow girls and women to play the game.
But the rest of the world is quickly catching up.
Four years ago, the U.S. squad was upset in the World Cup final by Japan, whose players were still wearing the emotion of an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that had killed nearly 16,000 people only three months earlier.
Japan is still a worthy rival. And, a handful of other countries are just as likely as the U.S. to raise the cup July 5. Among them is Germany, which won the tournament in 2003 and 2007, and will be playing for a final time with soon-to-be-retired goalkeeper Nadine Angerer.
France, which will host the Women’s World Cup in 2019, doesn’t have a stellar history of tournament performances but is ranked third in the world and could be a solid sleeper pick. The French squad is worth watching just to get a look at Louisa Necib, a midfielder known for her silky-smooth ball-handling skills and playmaking ability.
And then there’s Brazil. What more is there to say about Brazil than the country has Marta? The single-named forward was FIFA player of the year for five consecutive years, from 2006-10.
The U.S. squad will take the pitch with elite players at virtually every position. Among them is legendary forward Abby Wambach, who at 35 faces probably her last chance to win the big one. She has two Olympic medals and plenty of individual kudos — including 182 international goals, more than any player male or female — but no World Cup.
But while awash in skilled feet, powerful legs and more-than-capable defenders, the U.S. does not have an embarrassment of riches.
For one, a lingering knee injury has kept star forward Alex Morgan out of action for most of the past two months. She likely won’t play much in the first three group play games.
Also, goalkeeper Hope Solo is back with the team after a 30-day suspension earlier this year. The punishment was handed down in January after Solo’s husband, former pro football tight end Jerramy Stevens, was arrested on a charge of driving under the influence, with Solo accompanying him in the vehicle. As brilliantly as Solo plays, she has a knack for off-field trouble. In 2012, she was injured in a domestic altercation involving then-boyfriend Stevens, who was subsequently arrested — but nonetheless the two married the following day. And, a little more than a year ago, Solo was arrested on two misdemeanor counts of assault, one against her half-sister and another against her nephew, but the charges were later dismissed after a judge said both victims refused to cooperate in the case.
One other major change involves coaching. Coach Jillian Ellis took the helm a little more than a year ago after the firing of Tom Sermanni. The U.S. team was last coached to glory by Pia Sundhage, who resigned after the U.S. team won gold in the 2012 Olympics and subsequently was hired to coach the national team in her native Sweden. (Sweden, by the way, is another potential sleeper in the Women’s World Cup.)
All the games will be played in Canadian cities, and all on fields with artificial turf. American players have been vocal opponents of turf, so the field conditions could get into their heads and affect their mental outlook during a game.
A group of several dozen international players, including Wambach, filed a complaint in a Canadian tribunal court alleging the use of artificial turf was an unfair imposition on the women’s game and wouldn’t be acceptable in men’s World Cup matches. But the suit was eventually dropped.
Some players have predicted synthetic grass will lead to more injuries during the tournament, and less action — the latter being because balls tend to bounce out of bounds quicker on fake turf.
Artificial turf can also become intensely hot — reportedly up to 159 degrees on a midsummer day — although that’s not expected to be a serious problem in Canada.
Various studies about whether real grass is safer have been mostly anecdotal, and inconclusive.
But the players roundly prefer it.
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796
Women’s World Cup
Twenty-four teams from across the globe will face off in the seventh Women’s World Cup, which runs Saturday through July 5 in Canada. The semifinals are June 30 and July 1 with the final July 5.
6:30 p.m. Monday, vs. Australia, FS1
7 p.m. June 12, vs. Sweden, KDFW/Ch. 4
7 p.m. June 16, vs. Nigeria, KDFW/Ch. 4