Germany v Brazil. In the men's game it would be a meeting of the two most successful sides in football history. That the Women's World Cup will conclude with such a match in Shanghai tomorrow is perhaps a sign that the female branch of the game has come of age. It is no longer a sideshow, perceived by some as a freak show, largely dominated by the Scandinavians, Americans and Chinese. The major football powers now give the game serious attention.
The embodiment of this change is Marta, the Brazilian striker who is regarded as the final's most likely matchwinner. Fifa's 2006 Women's World Player of the Year, she grew up playing football with the boys in Dois Riachos, a small town in the northern Brazilian state of Alagoas, but moved to Sweden at 18 as women were not encouraged to play football in Brazil, a viewpoint even her family shared.
Change came fast. In July, 70,000 watched at the Maracana as Marta led Brazil to a 5-0 thrashing of the US to win gold in the Pan-American Games.
"We showed to the country what women's soccer can do, what potential it has," Marta said through tears afterwards. "Of course there is prejudice [in Brazil], and that makes things much more difficult for women, in football and other sports. We are trying to find our place."
As a consequence of that match Marta became the first woman to be inducted into the Maracana's walk of fame. Concrete imprints of her feet joined such male legends as Pele, Ronaldo, Romario and Garrincha. Pele made a congratulatory phone call to Marta, who had been nicknamed "Pele in skirts."
"I agree [that she is Pele in skirts]," said the real Pele, adding, "and I'll say this: she has an advantage because her legs are prettier than mine."
That is the sort of comment women's football could do without as it attempts to gain a foothold of its own in the crowded sports market. Sepp Blatter, Fifa's president, once suggested they should wear skimpy shorts to attract attention and sponsors, drawing comparisons with beach volleyball. While there is an argument that some tennis players, notoriously Anna Kournikova, but also Grand Slam winners like Maria Sharapova, use their looks to increase their marketing power, Blatter's view was not popular.
This week Blatter preferred to concentrate on the football. "I think there has been a big improvement in the individual technique of all the teams, and also in the rhythm and speed of the games," he said. "There has also been an improvement, although not with all teams, in the tactics. Compared to the 2003 Women's World Cup in the US, it's clear women's football has now reached a very good quality, but not yet in all continents. It is now our duty to develop women's football in all continents."
Fifa is to propose doubling its investment in the women's game, currently 10 per cent of expenditure. This translates into £125,000 per country, small beer compared to the £4.5m the Football Association invests but a lot of cash in many countries.
The FA is generally pleased with the English team's performance. Having not reached the World Cup since 1995, to make the last eight, and hold the defending champions Germany, was seen as an indicator of significant progress. There has also been increased publicity, helped by the BBC screening games. The difficult task now is to build on it, with the domestic game suffering financial problems, despite the lustre of Arsenal being the Uefa Women's Cup holders.
Tomorrow's final is live on BBC 2. Brazil will be the neutrals' favourite by default, but they deserve to be so, having lit up the tournament with some excellent attacking football. They are the only team to win all five matches. Germany, though, will be tough opposition. They have not conceded a goal in the competition and are looking to become the first team to retain the trophy. They were one of the few traditional male powers to take an early interest in women's football and, in Birgit Prinz, the 29-year-old three-times Fifa World Player of the Year, have the game's most decorated player.
At just under 6ft Prinz towers over the 5ft 3in Marta and is a more physical player. In 2003 she was the subject of an offer from Luciano Gaucci, the president of Perugia in Serie A. Gaucci, who once briefly signed Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's son, wanted to make her the first woman to play in a professional men's league. Prinz declined. Tomorrow she will lead a German attack also featuring a classy playmaker in Renate Lingor and experienced defender Kirsten Stegemann.
As well as Marta, Brazil will look to Christiane, a lively striker, and the 6ft centre-half Aline, the captain.
It has been a promising tournament which deserves a decent finale. Of the 16 teams only two, Argentina and Ghana, have looked out of their depth. The goalkeeping has been patchy: it remains a weakness in the women's game. There are physiological reasons for this but, suggested David James, the England men'sgoalkeeper who has paid the tournament close attention, with better training and technical adaptation goalkeepers' lack of height can be mitigated.
If a goalkeeper makes an error tomorrow, or the game is dull, it should be remembered the only time Brazil and Germany met in the men's World Cup, in the final in 2002, Olivier Kahn was at fault as Brazil won a disappointing game with ease.Reuse content