Football: America in love and having a ball

IT IS the ultimate footballing paradox. Come this evening, or lunchtime local time today, the whole of America will be gripped by a football match in which Britain and much of the western world is taking only a passing interest. Normally, of course, it is the other way round.

The women's World Cup final, between the host nation and China, neither of which has convincingly embraced the men's game, is an 86,000 sell-out at the Pasadena stadium seven miles from downtown Los Angeles - more specatators than watched last year's men's final at the Stade de France in Paris. Altogether, 567,982 fans have already watched 30 matches. Women's football, mocked to the point of derision by a macho section of British society, is decidedly a la mode in the United States.

America loves its winners but no one, not even the most passionate supporters of the game in this huge multi-racial country, can quite comprehend the mass appeal of a tournament that is making front-page news. And this in a nation which, with the exception of a couple of hotbeds, normally treats football, as most of the world knows it, as a big high-school sport but otherwise a pleasurable past-time behind the giants of baseball, gridiron, basketball and ice hockey.

There have been packed press conferences, individual interviews with the American players, platform speeches by prominent officials including the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, and even a two-day symposium that covered every aspect of the women's game from coaching to refereeing to medical facilities. Indeed, everything that breathes to do with tomorrow's match, being televised live on network television by ABC, is being snapped up by a voracious media that cannot quite believe that it is witnessing the biggest single women's sporting event ever staged.

Names that will not mean a thing once you hit the ocean east of New York have become overnight stars. None more than Mia Hamm, a millionaire at 27 with a healthy Nike sponsorship that many male players would die for. Hamm, a striker, is the closest thing American that football has to a rock star. People magazine has already voted her one of its 50 most beautiful people. She endorses everything there is to endorse and is mobbed in the street, predominently by female fans.

Certainly, interest might have waned had the US team not reached tomorrow's final, where they play a technically more accomplished and undoubtedly faster Chinese team. But, unlike the men's World Cup staged here in 1994, when America packed its stadiums but then went back to its traditional sports, the women's game is no passing phase.

Part of the reason for this is a landmark law that was passed in 1972 known as Title Nine. This required schools and universities to treat men and women equally when it came to sports scholarships. As a result, more than nine million women now play football. Tony Banks, Britain's Sports Minister, who is here to promote England's 2006 World Cup bid, can only lower his eyes in embarrassment when he compares such equality with our own image of women's football, and women's sport in general.

"Title Nine made an enormous difference," said Donna de Varona, chair of the women's World Cup organising committee. "It's true we have had a problem embracing men's professional soccer because we don't have the best. We saw the best here in 1994 and the stadiums were full. But the best were not from America. If they were, you'd see a different response."

Varona said Title Nine broke down the sexist barriers that have long existed overseas, whether perceived or actual. "In some countries, like in England, the women are always compared to the best male soccer players. We don't have those comparisons. Here, by the age of 10, you have generation of kids who relate to the game. Our best women athletes have chosen to play soccer in a sophisticated programme that caters for the grass roots, then picks off the best."

Yet even Varona, a former Olympic swimming champion, concedes that the outburst of interest and emotion in the women's World Cup, the third so far, has taken her by surprise. "I thought we'd be successful but, yes, it has exceeded my expectations."

There are, nevertheless, embarrassing concessions to ignorance. The mass-selling American newspaper USA Today, in its Thursday edition, published a detailed graphic showing the rules of football. Under the slogan "Simply Soccer," it attempted to set out the game in terms of number of players per team, duration of the game, tactics, description of the various positions and other basic information. What the graphic showed was that football still has some time to go before it can penetrate the pysche of most diehard American sports fans. Which makes the past three weeks of soccer intensity all the more baffling.

Who, then, is going to win? The Americans were the first world champions in 1991 but China are generally believed to be slight favourites. Not least by the Norwegian assistant coach, Jarl Torske, whose team were soundly thrashed 5-0 by the Chinese in the semi-finals last Sunday, the same day that the US beat Brazil 2-0.

"So far, the Americans' main weak point has been their defence," said Torske. "We paid the penalty for giving the Chinese too much space and they ran rings round us. If the Americans cut out the square passing, mark well and don't take too many risks, they will probably be all right because they are an excellent counter-attacking team. But unless they are tight at the back, they will lose the game."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
The 67P/CG comet as seen from the Philae lander
scienceThe most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Koenig, creator of popular podcast Serial, which is to be broadcast by the BBC
tvReview: The secret to the programme's success is that it allows its audience to play detective
Ruby Wax has previously written about her mental health problems in her book Sane New World
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas