Women's Cup grabs big-event status

77,000 expected for tomorrow's opener

June 18, 1999|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

MARTINSVILLE, N.J. -- Twenty women are scheduled to arrive by bus at the posh Pingry School for about 90 minutes of soccer practice this morning.

Practice figures to be routine for the day before a big game -- probably polishing "set pieces," or tricky scoring plays for certain game situations, and light conditioning.

But unlike practices earlier this week on what the 138-year-old school calls its "World Cup field," this one is secret. No doting 12-year-olds or their soccer moms and dads. No media allowed until 1 p.m. After that, it's solitude for these world-class athletes, time to reflect and focus.

For at midday tomorrow, the U.S. women's national soccer team will take its next bus ride a few miles east of here into benevolent bedlam. That will be the start of the 1999 Women's World Cup, which is being billed as history's largest women's sports events.

The bus' destination will be Giants Stadium, which by 3 p.m. is expected to contain 77,000 spectators. If that happens, that crowd will be the largest to watch a women's game anywhere, ever, topping the 76,489 who saw the United States beat China for the Olympic gold medal in Athens, Ga., three years ago.

"The response has been astounding," Marla Messing, president of the Cup organizing committee, said this week, attributing it to, among other things, "the growth in women's sports.

"The 1996 Olympics saw perhaps for the first time how entertaining and exciting and passionate women's sports can be."

Thousands at Giants Stadium will wear red, white and/or blue, because, male or female, a World Cup engenders nationalist fervor. Many will have flags, banners, horns, drums and, of course, painted faces.

At 3 p.m., the United States and Denmark are to kick off the final 32 games in this third FIFA women's world championship. Actually, a record 63 national teams played 141 matches starting last year to get this far. The 16 survivors remain.

Tomorrow's game, first of a doubleheader at Giants Stadium with Mexico-Brazil in the nightcap, is being televised to 74 countries. All tournament games, including two more tomorrow evening in San Jose, Calif., will be televised in this country, either on ABC, ESPN or ESPN2.

By the time a champion is decided July 10 in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., about 500,000 people will have paid between $30 and $110 per seat to watch. Six games -- in doubleheaders Wednesday, June 27 and quarterfinal contests July 1 that should include the U.S. team -- will be played at Landover's Jack Kent Cooke Stadium.

The entire 1995 women's tournament in Sweden drew 112,000, and as had been the case in China in 1991, TV exposure was all but nonexistent. Norway won in 1995, and the United States, champion in 1991, finished third.

The U.S. team's games figure to draw the biggest crowds, but even games in Landover; Foxboro, Mass.; Chicago; Portland, Ore.; and Pasadena, San Jose and Palo Alto, Calif., that involve the tournament's other 15 teams already have sold an average of 16,000 tickets. That's nearly double the American committee's original projections.

After realizing that 32 million females, including 7 million here, play the sport in 102 countries, FIFA, the world soccer governing body, wanted a big-deal event. Which is what the United States is delivering. Cup organizers, chaired by former U.S. Olympic swimming star Donna deVarona, already have met their mission: "To stage a breakthrough event for women's sports and inspire the next generation of female athletes."

In addition to being a relatively young but burgeoning sports event, the tournament is said to be taking on another dimension in some countries where women are decidedly second-class citizens.

Ghana's women, for example, have no leagues and no sanction at home, but still formed a team that proved Africa's second best. A top scorer for Nigeria endured public criticism for leaving her two children with relatives to compete. Mexico's soccer federation, which lavishes money on its men's team, only last year allotted the women money to compete -- using many players of dual citizenship who grew up in the United States.

Given the immense publicity it has received in the '90s, the U.S. team, the tournament's favorite, seems an institution. But the first U.S. women's team was formed just 14 years ago -- and lost three of its first four games in a tournament in Italy.

"It was laughable. We kind of just got sent to Italy with some second-hand uniforms and no time to prepare or play together," Michelle Akers, last of those players still playing and a likely starter again for the U.S. team tomorrow, recalls in "Women's Soccer: The Game and the World Cup," a book published for this event. That team's budget was $175,000.

Even after the U.S. women returned from China in 1991 with the first world title, players missed nearly the entire next year because the U.S. Soccer Federation devoted its time and money to the men's game.

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