`Babes' stir football fever

Letter from washington

THE WOMEN'S World Cup, according to Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle, is "the great myth of England. Simply put, it does not exist. There isn't a single word in any newspaper, at any time, nor are any of the matches on television. As far as the Brits are concerned, the event has been cancelled because of lack of interest."

"Well, the British team didn't qualify," one British sports editor apparently told him. "And the men have so much more of a world presence here. I dare say there wouldn't be much American coverage if your team wasn't in it."

There is huge coverage in the United States, where the tournament is being played. The American team is not just in it; it has dominated women's soccer for a decade. It is photogenic, talented and successful.And it is something more: there is a social wave at work here.

The American team is fantastically attractive, in every sense. "Babe City" is one ironic label they attach to themselves. Juliet Foudy, Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain are national heroes, win or lose. Chastain distinguished herself by scoring an own goal in the quarter-finals, then went on to score again. She has appeared on David Letterman, and modelled for Gear magazine with just a ball between her and the camera.

They are also great competitors, and the fans love them for it. The crowds have been full capacity - mainly young women. And the team have captured the public imagination. In their match against Germany in the quarter- finals, the Clintons - Bill, Hillary and Chelsea - were all there, and the Clintons know popular when they see it.

But this has been an odd competition for America. Its two main national games - baseball and American football - barely exist as professional sports outside North America. Ice hockey is a regional taste and there is no great basketball competition to compete with soccer internationally. There are US rugby, cricket and male soccer teams, but they aren't going anywhere. It is not used to participating as a successful team in a multinational competition, the Olympics apart. It is, in sporting terms, a world apart, and all of this is a novelty.

Anyway, the media has more than enough to occupy itself without wretched foreigners. Even when the American men's team was in the World Cup last year, it gained minimal attention: the world's favourite game was conspicuous by its absence from every bar, every television screen and every newspaper. To watch the competition you had to switch on the Hispanic channels. This time America is giving itself headlines, and it is tempting to say that it is purely because they are there and they have made a good show. This is, after all, a nation of 250 million and most televised sport is local rather than national: there are a lot of balls on a lot of channels.

But soccer is different in the US. Two weeks ago, I was in a bar when a fellow drinker came over to switch the TV from soccer to basketball. "Who watches TV outside of high school?" he asked rhetorically. Mr Jenkins said that even if the Americans weren't in the Women's Cup, "the screen wouldn't go completely blank". It certainly did in Timberlakes Bar on Connecticut Avenue for the duration of the World Cup last year.

The game here has an image as being young, middle class and somehow unmanly to the typical male sports fan in his 40s or 50s. It is not a mainstream activity, not yet, but it is tremendously popular with the young and suburban.

The nation is going through a terrific period of soccer obsession in many areas, even without Foudy, Chastain and Hamm. Soccer pitches - "soccerplexes", even, with dozens of pitches - are being built across the nation. And soccer here is a resolutely mixed game, with many women's and girls teams. That is why hard-core male sporties give it a quizzical look and the younger generation latches on. It has no associations, as it does in Britain and most of Europe, with working-class culture: this is an up and coming sport in every way.

And even if it has made few waves abroad, this competition will not be forgotten in America for decades: it has made a deep impact on the younger generation.

Perhaps the single greatest moment so far was Chastain's ability to make a mistake against Germany and then play on to score, a truly American archetype. "This game is more than making one mistake," she said later. "It's about learning, growing, never giving up, moving forward, making friendships, giving fans back what they paid for."

That, by the way, is American for: it is a game of 90 minutes.

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