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American success is what’s needed to pull women’s soccer back into mainstream

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So, here’s the offer. I have a line on tickets for the 2011 Champions League final. In London. I can get seats just a couple of rows from the field. In the corner. Or at midfield. Or behind the goals. And, all a ticket will cost is about the same as you’d pay to see the Edmonton Drillers or Calgary United play a Canadian Major Indoor Soccer League tilt. There’s some added glamour to seeing the game in London, because Arsenal is still alive in the competition.

Excited? It’s the Women’s Champions League final. Set for May 26 at Craven Cottage. The prices for the game have been set at £5 for adults and £3 for kids.

What’s the point? In 2010, UEFA got 10,372 bums into seats in Getafe, Spain to see FFC Turbine Potsdam beat Olympique Lyonnais in penalties after a 0-0 draw in the women’s Champions League final. This year, UEFA is coming as close as possible to giving the tickets away — but does anyone have faith that Fulham’s home park will even make it to half full, even if Arsenal, which won the ladies’ title four years ago, gets back to the final?

Look, in a perfect world, we’d see equality in men and women’s sport. And that means that women’s soccer would generate the same kind of buzz as the men do. But UEFA’s attempts to grow the professional women’s game forces the organization to come as close to papering the house as humanly possible without having to admit, well, that you’re papering the house. Check out UEFA’s pitch, on its website: “UEFA Women’s Champions League tickets are available to buy at bargain prices.”

As tickets go on sale for the Women’s Champions League final, FIFA is deliberating between two bids for the 2015 women’s World Cup. On March 3, Sepp Blatter and co. will choose between Canada, which has a women’s team that is threatening to boycott games unless a deal is reached to keep coach Carolina Morace on board, or Zimbabwe, which has a bid going forward solely based on tugging at FIFA’s heartstrings.  Zimbabwe is gambling the emotional pull of taking the WWC to Africa will outweigh the absolute lack of economic sense its bid represents.

There were rumours of other bids but they never materialized. That is, 99 per cent of the soccer world walked away from the chance to host a WWC. So on, decison day, the choice is this. If Canada gets its women’s-team issues in order by the time of the vote, it should win by virtual default. If it can’t, then Zimbabwe gets the tournament — and forces FIFA into an act of sheer charity.

These are signs that the women’s game isn’t getting stronger; in fact, we may be seeing the same trend that we’ve seen with women’s hockey. After a surge in interest in the 2000s, the game is shrinking rather than growing. WPS is a case of Russian roulette for franchises. Even Christine Sinclair, Canada’s best-ever player, admitted her frustration. When she was name the country’s 2010 player of the year, she admitted how saddened she was that her WPS championship side, FC Gold Pride, folded — and that she needed to move to a new franchise in Western New York.

“We have seen so many teams fold over the two years it’s [WPS] has been around,” she said. “At the same time, more teams are coming in. This league is so important for soccer in North America. It would be a shame if it didn’t succeed. Here in North America, we need to show respect to the women’s league and respect to women’s sports.”

The next key date for the women’s game is February 24. That’s the day FIFA will announce whether or not a lottery is needed to allocate tickets for the 2011 WWC in Germany. Best seats in the house for the Germany-Canada opener are going for 120 Euros; it’ll cost 200 Euros for a ticket to the final, for one of the better seats. That’s a heck of a lot more than five quid.

FIFA’s valuation of women’s soccer is far more ambitious than UEFA’s. Remember when women’s soccer broke into the mainstream, when the Americans beat China in the 1999 WWC final at the Rose Bowl? The women were celebrities. At the 2002 world women’s U-19 championships, 47,000 people came down to Commonwealth Stadium to see a thrilling final between Canada, featuring Sinclair and Kara Lang, and the U.S.

So, what’s the common thread to the success of women’s soccer? When the fans came out in Edmonton, it’s because Canada had the United States to play in the final, the junior arm of what was easily the No. 1 program in the world at the time. When the American women won in 1999, it set off a media frenzy, putting the likes of Brandi Chastain and Mia Hamm on the front pages of sports sections. Women’s soccer is the opposite of the men’s game; the men don’t need the game to be a massive success in the U.S. in order for the sport to thrive globally. The women, however, see their global fortunes tumble when the media machine isn’t following the national team.

The U.S. team did poorly, by its standards, in the qualifying process, needing a playoff win over Italy to qualify for Germany 2011. So, there’s a lack of buzz.

And that interest is limited to the women’s national team. A majority of fans who follow the American women’s team haven’t funneled down to WPS.

Even though the U.S. is Canada’s CONCACAF rival, even though it’s a fantastic achievement for Canada to take the 2010 Gold Cup, every blow the U.S. women take is a blow to the popularity of the women’s game. We see that it has yet to sell in Europe; and no matter how good Marta or Birgit Prinz or even Christine Sinclair have been over the past five seasons, none have come close to the global popularity that Hamm and Chastain enjoyed. The women need a strong United States program; their success is good for the health of the women’s game.

As much as it may hurt the Canadian fans, the best thing to happen to women’s soccer, the boost that the game desperately needs to help raise the money that Morace wants, would be if the U.S. were the big, bad girls on the block again.

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