Since this month's World Cup final, women's football has become big business in America. But in most other countries the girls' game still has more to do with fun than money. Richard Williams reports

"AN UNFORGETTABLE portrait of determination and grace," the New York Times called it. But then, of course, they won. And, as is always said, America worships a winner. She certainly loved her winners on 11 July, when their football team won the third Women's World Cup final in front of 90,185 people in the sunlit Pasadena Rose Bowl. Brandi, Mia, Brianna, Shannon, Kristine, Michelle, Julie and their team-mates became national heroes.

The match had been prefaced by the ritual that opens all major open-air American sporting events, from the Ryder Cup to the Indianapolis 500. "The Star-Spangled Banner" is sung by some pop act or other (in this case, showing a surprising lack of gender discrimination, the all-boy trio Hanson), whose voices strain to hang on to the high notes that carry the lines about the rockets' red glare and bombs bursting in air. The President himself stands to attention, hand on his heart. As the last notes die away, a quartet of F14 fighter planes makes a pass over the field, flying in a tight diamond formation at 500ft. Flags flutter, shoulders straighten, breasts swell, eyes prickle. It's supposed to make you want to go straight out and invade a small foreign country.

In this case, the opposition came from a large foreign country. The China team represented a population of more than a billion - or 51 per cent of it, at least. And, of course, an alien creed, although not much was made of that. This was not America versus the Soviet Union, in the style of that famous ice-hockey match at the height of the Cold War, or America versus Cuba in the baseball tournament at the Barcelona Olympics, or America versus Iran in last summer's World Cup for men.

In every other respect, the match bore an astonishing resemblance to the last big soccer match held at the Rose Bowl, the 1994 World Cup final between the men of Brazil and Italy. On that occasion, Roberto Baggio hoofed a penalty over the bar during the shoot-out that followed a goalless 120 minutes, giving the championship to the South Americans. This time, Brianna Scurry's save from Liu Ying's kick during the shoot-out gave the home country the title after another two hours without a goal.

But none of the Brazilian men behaved as Brandi Chastain did when her left-foot penalty kick hit the net to seal victory for America. The tall blonde defender fell to her knees and whipped off her white shirt, revealing a black sports bra. A spontaneous gesture of celebration? Possibly. But it later transpired that not only did Chastain have an endorsement deal with Nike, makers of the bra, but she had helped design the article herself. Thus, in the era of sport as showbusiness, is a great event put in the service of naked commerce.

But it certainly was a great event, no question. The average attendance at the matches topped 35,000. Across the States, there were 40 million people watching the final on television, a larger number than had tuned in to the men's final in 1994 - or, more astonishingly, to the recent National Basketball Association playoffs between the New York Knicks and the San Antonio Spurs. If the American women's team became, in Sports Illustrated's words, a national talking-point, then Americans were also talking about the prowess of the players of other nations, such as the joint top-scorers, Sissi of Brazil and Sun Wen of China, who notched seven goals apiece. In other parts of the world, where football is a more organic part of the culture, channel-surfers found themselves pausing to admire a piece of televised ball-skill, only to realise moments later that it had been performed not by a ponytailed male player but by a woman. And they probably stayed to watch on.

There are 7.5 million women and girls playing football in the States, so it probably wasn't too hard to find a couple of dozen who could do it well. The game's growth among women has been fertilised by the legally- enforced equality of investment in men's and women's sport in schools and colleges, while soccer's lack of history in America means that it is unaffected by the traditional attitudes that apply in Britain. Here the women's game has a mere 34,000 registered participants, despite a four-fold increase over the past 10 years; and England's failure to qualify for the World Cup finals reflects the domestic game's limited means and expectations.

In America, the victory has been hailed as the dawn of a new era. Just as the gold-medal triumph of the US women's basketball squad at the Atlanta Olympic Games, which made stars of Dawn Staley and Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie, provided the springboard for the launch of a women's pro- basketball league, so it is being said that the soccer team's success can lay the foundations of a permanent competitive structure - and one which could prove more successful than Major League Soccer, the organisation which sprang up after USA '94. It is not impossible to imagine that, in the United States, soccer will become primarily a women's game.

But it would be hard to imagine anything further from the pomp and pageantry of the Women's World Cup final than the informal studies of women footballers that appear on these pages, which were commissioned by the Contact Press photographic agency. Even more than the sight of Brandi Chastain removing her shirt, they present an unanswerable case for the existence of women's football.

Tomas Muscionico, a 31-year-old Swiss, took many of the pictures shown here. "In all these places," he said, "I wanted to show how soccer related to the women's lives in a wider sense, and to do that I spent three or four weeks in each place, getting to know not just the players but their coaches and sometimes their parents. In South Africa, for instance, where I had worked before, I wanted to show how these young women used soccer as a vehicle of emancipation. But sometimes, of course, they told me about their problems. In South Africa some of the girls would tell me, 'If I hadn't slept with the coach, I wouldn't have been picked for the team.' In Nigeria one family had to leave home because their Islamic neighbours didn't approve of their daughter playing football."

He started to notice all sorts of things. "Among male soccer players, there are established codes of behaviour. It's OK for male players to hug and kiss each other after one of them has scored a goal, for instance. Society understands that. But for women, it might be different. They have to deal with much more. I found that it's worst for them in countries like England and Italy, where men play the game and go to watch other men playing. In countries such as the US and Norway, where they're not so accustomed to the game being defined by the success of male players, it's easier for them to be accepted. But in Brazil, as you might expect, the women have a particularly hard time persuading the media to take them seriously."

And yet Brazil's extra-time victory over Nigeria in the World Cup quarter- final last month provided one of the most exciting football matches of recent times, regardless of gender. After Brazil had taken a three-goal lead in the first half, Nigeria produced an epic fight-back which took them to 3-3 before one of their defenders was sent off. Their 10 women held out until the 104th minute, when Sissi curled a 25-yard free kick past the African team's goalkeeper, Judith Chime. It would be easy to draw a comparison between this match and another famous occasion in the men's World Cup, Italy's tumultuous 4-3 defeat of West Germany in 1970. But if one thing has become clear this summer, it is that the women's game has no need of such presumptuous flattery. It is what it is. And if we are lucky, there will be a lot more of it for us to enjoy.

Yes, football is the sport of Stanley Matthews and Pele and Zinedine Zidane. Nothing will change that. But look at these pictures. These, too, are "unforgettable portraits of determination and grace", in very different circumstances. And if you didn't know about Matthews and Pele and Zidane, they might make you imagine that here is a game invented to be played by women. So now there is more to football than raised studs and groin strains and the half-time cup of Bovril. The world's biggest game has discovered within itself another dimension, that's all.

Richard Williams is the chief sports writer of The Independent

Captions: Right: Julie Foudy, co-captain of the USA team, which won the World Cup this month.

Above: Daniela Alves Lima,17, of the Brazilian team, practising near her 'favela' on the outskirts of Sao Paulo

Anticlockwise from right: the Nigerian goalkeeper, Anna Chiejine, with boys in her neighbourhood in Lagos; Norway's goalkeeper during a friendly in China; Ghana's reserve goalkeeper; the Brazilian team warming up; three Russian players in their military uniform; China's reserve goalkeeper; Linda Medalen of the Norwegian team during a game against Italy

Above: Veronica Phewe, 18, with her mother in Natal province, South Africa. Right: Anna Chiejine, the Nigerian goalkeeper, on her way home

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