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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Soccer / FIFA Women's World Cup / The whole world at their feet?

Just one in two Germans can name a female footballer, according to a YouGov survey this week - even as the country gets ready to host a women's World Cup in which the Germans are favorites to win. The euphoria of the 2006 men's competition brought millions out onto the streets to watch and allowed Germany to impress the world with its hospitality and organizational skills.
Five years later, the women are having mixed success in drumming up the same interest, both in terms of the viewing public and in attracting new players to the sport. "Everybody thought that women's soccer had arrived in 1999," said Canada captain Christine Sinclair, referring to the third edition of the women's World Cup when a record-breaking 90,000 people turned out to watch the United States beat China in the final in Los Angeles.
Abby Wambach in Dresden - AP - June 25 2011
Abby Wambach of the United State shooting during a training session yesterday ahead of the Women’s Soccer World Cup in Dresden, Germany.
Photo by: AP
But viewing figures for subsequent World Cups have dropped off. "We thought we'd be able to fill every stadium, but growth has been slow," admitted Sinclair at a press conference launching a FIFA campaign to promote women's soccer.
Around 700,000 of the 900,000 tickets available for the 2011 competition, which begins today, have been sold, though some stadiums are having more difficulties. The western German city of Bochum, hosting some of the less glamorous teams such as New Zealand and Japan, has sold less than half its tickets.
"We want to attract younger women to the game by presenting an image of female footballers as cool and confident, who are very serious about the sport, but who know how to have fun with it."
After a media campaign with clips featuring top players such as Sinclair, her country's most capped player and its most prolific goal scorer, and Germany's 21-year-old Under-20 World Cup winner Kim Kulig, FIFA plans to turn to its member associations and encourage more women to get involved at a local level.
The lack of opportunities there is one of the main problems facing women's soccer, according to 28-year-old Sinclair. "After the age of 18 I didn't really know where to go," she said.
FIFA has remained ambivalent about the five members of the German national team who staged their own media campaign earlier this month - by posing for the German edition of Playboy. "The message is: Look, we're very normal - and pretty - girls," said 20-year-old midfielder Kristina Gessat, who took part in the shoot.
"Every woman can decide how she wants to present herself," said Tatjana Haenni, FIFA's head of women's competitions. "That's just one way of drawing attention to the sport, and they did succeed in that.
"But we think the sport should be the main thing. We don't want people to suddenly watch women's football because the players are erotic. That's a short-term effect, and we're interested in developing the sport over the long term."
"On the other hand it does show how women's football has changed," pointed out 30-year-old Dagmar Lutz, the captain of a local Berlin team. "Twenty years ago, it was a political statement to play women's football, it was all feminists. Now there are women who play who are also into painting their nails."
It's not just about getting more women into the sport, says England-born teammate Leila Mukhida. "Everything that's reported - it's about how they look and not about how they play, their techniques, injuries, strengths."
The women also need to be paid more, she says. The United States is routinely cited as being the only country in the world where women can make a living from soccer, and are generally more popular than their male counterparts. Though there is a semi-professional league in Germany, most of the players have secondary jobs or are students.
"Do you know how much I paid to watch the women's Champions League final in London?" asked Mukhida. "Five pounds ($8 ). I'd rather pay more and for the players to be paid more." And female footballers and their fans are tired of negative comparisons to their male counterparts - which doesn't happen in other sports, they say.
"The sport is exactly the same - the ball, the pitch, the rules," said Lutz. Only the limited talent pool and opportunities available for up-and-coming young players are hindering its progression.
"The long-term goal isn't for it to become like men's football," added Haenni. "But there's massive potential in it, and to reach it we have to develop the national leagues and start making a profit out of it."
But there's still a long way to go. In another opinion poll carried out in Germany by Marketagent in April, more than half named Italy, the Netherlands and Spain, all giants in the men's sport, as the teams to look out for in the upcoming World Cup. Hopefully they won't be placing any bets, as sadly none of those countries are taking part.