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."