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Women's soccer retakes stage, but '99 aura is long kick away

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TURN ON THE TV, go to the neighborhood tavern and watch some of the Women's World Cup, whose broadcasts start today with the U.S. team's 12:30 p.m. opener against Sweden at RFK Stadium on ABC. That's the advice from defender Joy Fawcett. The 35-year-old U.S. national team veteran believes it's again time for everyone to take a look.

Mia Hamm is better fit and a better player than ever before - if that's possible. The Swedes should give the United States a good match. And if Germany and the U.S. team advance to their destined semifinal, it should prove an epic showdown. The Americans are favored to win it all, and yet the talented Germans might be ready to dethrone the queens.

"The venues for this Cup will be smaller than in '99, but this is another chance to let the following for women's sports and women's soccer grow. I have three daughters and it saddens me, it makes me angry to think this could be the end of the dream," Fawcett said.

America loves an event, but this time, there's less chance the women's World Cup and specifically the U.S. national team will catch anyone by surprise. It made its historic mark in '99 in the sweet lull of summer. It reached a climax with nothing else on the sporting docket and set forth an ambitious agenda. But suddenly, the agenda appears to have gone from a giant step forward to two steps back.

Sports and social politics are not exactly a sexy combination. It's not the kind of synergy - the sports marketing term of the millennium - that drives TV ratings. Nor does it motivate corporate sponsorship, if we take the recently disbanded Women's United Soccer Association at its word.

Maybe not enough CEOs stepped up to pay for the women's pro league, where some terrific veterans and stellar new talents were plying their trade - and getting better. Maybe some corporate kingpins have now heard last week's cash call. However, it's important to frame the state of women's soccer the way it ought to be framed.

WUSA officials did not do their math very well, blowing through their entire five-year budget of $40 million in the first season alone. No wonder WUSA had to announce suspension of the fledgling league's eight teams. No wonder 375 players and staff members are now unemployed. No wonder terrific players and even better sporting ambassadors, such as Fawcett and Hamm and Brandi Chastain, have to go begging. They've got until Oct. 12 to not only secure a World Cup victory, but also bank more corporate backing to allow this alternative market the chance to grow.

Bad decisions and mistakes aside, there's little doubt, especially in these uncertain times and recessionary economy, sports and social politics aren't a hot commodity.

The World Cup is not Lisa Guerrero on an NFL sideline. It's not Ray Lewis demoralizing a running back, then stomping and waving to heaven in an exaggerated gladiator pose. It's not the Miami Hurricanes coming all the way back on Florida. It's not even the Red Sox on one coast and the Mariners on another vying for that final postseason ticket.

These are the unambiguous images and plots of the sports that command the spotlight. It is onto this full-throttle, high-scoring, testosterone-infused sporting landscape that the 2003 Women's World Cup must not only compete, but now, under the circumstances, also thrive.

Then again, expectations in 1999 were tough to gauge, considering that the World Cup and the U.S. team's run to the title did not pick up full steam until that sun-drenched finale at the Rose Bowl.

"It doesn't change expectations at all. We've been walking a tightrope with WUSA for a year. What we've wanted to do from the get-go is win this thing for ourselves and for soccer. That hasn't changed," veteran Tiffeny Milbrett said last week as the United States trained for today's opener.

"Even in '99 you could never have imagined or dreamed that it was going to work out the way that it did. For us, things happened in '99 that were history-making and societal changes. It made society look at women athletes differently. You can never judge that something like that could have that kind of impact. We were really fortunate to have some forward kind of movement out of that '99 Cup. I think we still do. Soccer is bigger than ever, and girls are playing more than ever."

But the relationship between the existence of that youth soccer demographic and an economically legitimate fan base is the bridge that has yet to be crossed, as WUSA's woes show.

Maybe women's sports is not much more than the flavor of the week or the cover of the month. Think of the attention and media coverage and TV ratings Annika Sorenstam received for her play with the men at the PGA's Colonial Classic in May.

For all the fuss, Sorenstam's feat was a one-shot deal in which a great female golfer tested her mettle against the big hitters. It caused terrific and important discourse on gender and sports, but in the end, it was a limited foray into the representation and advancement of elite female athletes. As LPGA observers wondered back then: Why did it take Sorenstam's arrival on the PGA to get people to notice her? Sorenstam has been far more brilliant tearing up the LPGA, which struggles for ratings, but can still pay players and the bills.

Now, four months after Sorenstam, a women's sporting event is upon us in which the best female soccer players on the planet will compete in a 16-team tournament. It is one of two things, depending on your point of view: Irrelevant, because it is women playing women, or: Relevant because it is women playing women.

It's a good thing the women are skilled and talented and hungry enough to put on a great tournament and don't have to rely on the good social conscience of anyone curious enough to tune in. Watch for Hamm to leave everything on the field the next three weeks. Watch for the Frenchwoman Marinette Pichon or Hanna Ljungberg of Sweden or Germany's Birgit Prinz.

"How can so many millions of [soccer] players [in the United States] be wrong? This is a product of quality," Chastain said.

"This is something for fans of soccer and women's sports that the fans of the NFL and NHL have been able to enjoy. There is value here."

It's time again to see what she's talking about.

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