What to watch until 2015
Heading into the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, expectations were rather lofty. It had been generally accepted that Germany was certainly capable of staging an event on a par with the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup in measures of attendance and stadium atmosphere. With an average attendance of 26,430 per match (third best in Women’s World Cup history) and 86% of total stadium capacity used, the hopes were realized.
And the excitement wasn’t limited to the hundreds of thousands in attendance. US television audiences burgeoned after the United States’ valiant comeback victory against Brazil in the quarterfinals. The final drew an overnight rating of 8.6 viewers, eclipsing the average viewing figures for the 2010 World Series. German TV viewers had tuned in with similar enthusiasm. A total of 16 million people watched the hosts defeat Canada on the opening day of the tournament, representing 60 percent of the market share.
Worldwide interest in the event was also confirmed by Twitter; the cultural weatherglass du jour. The final drew a record number 7,196 Tweets per second.
The immediate questions regarding this year’s edition of the Women’s World Cup have been answered with affirmation and, perhaps even, optimism. But what of the broader questions, the ones whose answers will perhaps take years to become truly discernible.
The tournament left a distinguished mark, no doubt, but will it be a lasting one?
It’s important to keep expectations measured. The women’s game, after all, exists almost exclusively on the fringes of the world’s most popular – and commercially lucrative – sport. There are a plethora of reasons for this; some complex, others simple, some infuriating, others sensible.
The tournament may not be what vaults women’s soccer into primetime, but it may be the springboard that launches women’s soccer into the future with genuine kinetic energy. The time between now and the next World Cup cycle in 2015 could prove to be significant to the continued growth of the women’s soccer. And promising, too.
The standard of women’s soccer is improving dramatically, as a generation of players who are the direct beneficiaries of heightened levels of investment in the game in continents like Europe and Asia are now coming of age.
For as much flak as FIFA attracts on a spectrum of issues, the governing body’s official establishment in 2006 of biennial youth World Cups will only help to identify and foster talent around the world. FIFA’s decision to expand the field for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup to 24 teams will also make the sports’ most prestigious title more inclusive.
The 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup helped showcase standout players, extraordinary story lines, and – perhaps most of all – a high standard of play. The World Cup didn’t create any of those things, however. They were already there before the opening whistle sounded. They'll be here after the last fleck of celebratory confetti is removed from Frankfurt’s Commerzbank-Arena. It’s just that in this remarkable instance, the world tuned in to watch.
Hopefully not for the last time. There will be more opportunities to watch said things in action. And in a hyper-competitive tournament setting, too.
Cast a longing eye to Europe …
Perhaps some of the momentum generated from this World Cup can be parlayed into next summer's Olympics in London. Two-time World Cup champions Germany won’t have the chance to absolve themselves from their stunning crash out of this year’s World Cup, but others may rise in their stead.
France dazzled their way to the semifinals thanks to the mercurial play of 24-year-old Louisa Necib and a creative corps of midfielders, wingers, and forwards. They’ll be there. Sweden’s highly functional 4-4-2 system outdid France in the third-place match. They’ll be there, too.
Louisa Necib's performance at Germany 2011 made her a symbol of the new direction of women's international soccer. (Frank Augstein/Getty Images)
Sweden will also play host to the 2013 UEFA Women’s European Championship; a tournament that has been dominated by Germany since its inception, but by then, the tournament could reflect the growing levels of parity and increased emphasis on technical precision.
France and Sweden share another common thread: Olympique Lyonnais. Sweden was led by stellar striker Lotta Schelin. The 27-year-old was one of the tournament’s standout (and most predatory) forwards. Her tournament total of two goals is deflated by a number of questionable offside decisions.
Schelin plies her trade in France’s Feminine Division for Lyon; a recent entrant into women’s soccer’s stratosphere of elite clubs. Last May, the team won its first UEFA Women’s Champions League crown, defeating the defending champions in the final, Germany’s Turbine Potsdam. It’s no longer an obscure fact that 10 members of France’s World Cup talent-laden roster play club soccer for Lyon.
That May final provided an exquisite display of the skill level the women's game has attained. And even prior to (and including) that match, the level of spectator interest was encouragingly high.
In the semifinals, 20,123 people packed out Lyon’s famed Stade de Gerland to watch the home side defeat Arsenal Ladies. The crowd was a competition record for a semifinal match. The attendance figure is even more remarkable when juxtaposed with the amount of fans drawn to the return leg at Arsenal’s home ground at Borehamwood. Just 507 fans were accounted for on the day. The numbers for the tournament final rose dramatically, however, as a respectable figure of 14,303 people took in the match at Fulham’s Craven Cottage.
The numbers, signs women's soccer's premier club competition is still growing, gives fans reason to hope. Perhaps in the same way the UEFA Champions League, and not the FIFA World Cup, is now the standard bearer for eminence in men’s soccer, a similar phenomenon might be recognized in the women’s game - not in the sense that the Champions League will command more gravitas than the Women’s World Cup (women’s soccer is much too early in its development for that to happen), but rather, in terms of the quality of play. UEFA re-branded the competition for the 2009-10 edition in a bid to draw more legitimacy. It also indicated that UEFA was beginning to take the event more seriously.
When UEFA re-branded the competition for the 2009-10 edition, it did so in as an attempt to garner more legitimacy. It also indicated the organization was ready to take the event more seriously, another reason to be hopefully about the tournament.
Champions League may also provide some much needed stability. Unlike the sporadic and often times fickle awareness that a Women’s World Cup or Olympics might bring, national and transnational club competitions occurs on a yearly basis, thereby providing more opportunity to keep interest fixed and coverage consistent.
Of course, those matches can be hard to seek out, particularly for Americans, thought strides have recently been made. In May, GolTV announced that the network had the rights to broadcast the UEFA Women’s Champions League final through to 2013.
And it’s not unreasonable to think that any potential residual benefits of this World Cup will be felt on distant shores more than in the United States. While the women’s game in Europe may not yet be a commercially profitable or spectator-driven sport, it is at least stable. Both Germany’s Frauen-Bundesliga and Sweden’s Damallsvenskan are semi-professional leagues that have been firmly established since the early 1990s.
The positive effects may be seen in Asia, too. Japan’s L-League and Australia’s W-League are still coming into their own, but both operate on similar models, and might also benefit from a World Cup bounce. Japan, in particular.
… and a glare of concern toward home.
There is hope for the United States, as well, though the stakes are considerably higher.
While the US Women’s National Team’s World Cup run captivated large swathes of the country, it’s unclear whether it will be enough to save the embattled domestic league - Women’s Professional Soccer - from an unfortunate demise before its fourth season.
Attendance figures have been scant this season, as has media interest. It’s still too early to make decisive judgments, however, and the news that Wednesday’s Western New York Flash/magicJack is both sold out and will be televised live on Fox Soccer Channel is heartening.
USA's striker Alex Morgan (L) runs with the ball during the FIFA Women's Football World Cup final match Japan vs USA on July 17, 2011 in Frankfurt am Main, western Germany. (AFP PHOTO / PATRIK STOLLARZ)
The Flash is home to 22-year-old forward Alex Morgan, whose boundless promise has been partly realized after her excellent performances for the US in both their semifinal and final. Morgan looks destined for stardom. Along with teammate Lauren Cheney, Morgan could well lead the US front line in the 2015 World Cup.
Cheney, 24, was another standout in the World Cup. Her imposing physical stature and cannon-footed shots helped add another dimension to the US’s attack.
Thanks in part to WPS and televised youth and senior-level USWNT matches, it’s been possible to track both players’ development through the years. That kind of accessibility is integral to the growing appeal and commercial ambitions of women’s soccer.
It’s why WPS’s survival is so critical. It’s hard to deny the league’s star power, especially as it welcomes back the entirety of the USWNT as well as other world class talents like Marta (Brazil), Christine Sinclair (Canada), and Kelly Smith (England). The league is especially unique in that it has such a deep assortment of marquee names across just six franchises. That level of high concentration of elite players is unlike anything in club women’s soccer today, and it would be a sincere shame if it’s all gone after August.
There’s obviously a marked difference between a World Cup and club soccer (pageantry and patriotism are distinct virtues of one and not the other). Will fans separate the two or support the players regardless of the competition? If there is ever to be a fresh level of engagement in WPS, now is high time.
Sometimes it takes a bit of work to actively follow the in’s and out’s of the game, particularly abroad. Perhaps the generous amount of interest driven by the 2011 World Cup will make that task a little easier from here on out.
From next summer’s Olympics, to the following season’s Euros, to qualifying campaigns for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup and each club soccer match in between, there will be no shortage of high-quality action.
If even a fraction of the new found fans that "discovered" women’s soccer this month turn their passing curiosity into continued interest, the game will grow.
The World Cup may now be over, but there is so much to look forward to.