The main event in world soccer this summer in South Africa is over. But if you’re still fixing for your fill of intense international competition, you could do worse than to look to Germany right now, where the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup began play yesterday, a crowd of 23,995 watching the hosts defeat Costa Rica 4-2 in the opening game.
Perhaps the more interesting result came in the second game: North Korea defeated Brazil 1-0, a result you might think is quite an upset. But, really, it’s not. North Korea reached the final of the previous U-20Women’s World Cup, losing 2-1 to the United States in the final, and won the previous edition of the competition in 2006, as well as the 2008 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup.
It’s worth taking a brief look at the history of this tournament since it began in 2002 to get a sense of what we can expect in Germany this month.
The tournament has been a bright spot in women’s soccer, since the first final in Edmonton, Canada drew a crowd of 47,784 at Commonwealth Stadium to see the home team go down 1-0 to the United States in September 2002. That crowd was no aberration: much like the 1999 Women’s World Cup that saw the US draw 90,185 fans to the Rose Bowl for the final, the home crowd got behind their team, 37,194 watching the semi-final as Canada defeated Brazil on penalty kicks, Chrstine Sinclair playing a starring role and a young Marta on view in Commonwealth Stadium.
The decision to stage games at Commonwealth Stadium, a vast venue in Edmonton built for the 1978 Commonwealth Games, was controversial: FIFA officials, visiting in 2001, had warned games would be played to an empty venue. But though some games were poorly attended, Commonwealth Stadium averaged a healthy 19,841 per game. Considerably smaller crowds attended smaller venues in Vancouver and Victoria, but an overall average of 11,351 per game for the duration of the competition far surpassed FIFA’s expectations.
That, again, was an echo of 1999: FIFA had wanted the Women’s World Cup games to be played at small venues on the east coast of the United States, but the American organising committee, gutsily led by Marla Messing, went for huge stadia and the decision paid-off: it felt like a big event, and became a big event.
Similarly, that 2002 U-19 Women’s World Cup in Canada, featuring 12 teams, received extensive local media coverage according to FIFA’s technical report. The final was watched by almost 1 million viewers on Canada’s Sportsnet station. Not unimportantly, the tournament also provided vital experience for young referees: 12 female referees and 12 assistants from 20 countries officiated the 26 games, most of them making their debuts in official FIFA competition. Only two red cards were issued in the entire tournament.
The next U-19 Women’s World Cup was held in Thailand in November 2004, won by Germany, adding that title to their Women’s World Cup win the previous year in the United States, and pre-cursing their second senior world title in 2007. As in 2002, attendance was very strong for the host nation’s games, with 40,000 attending Thailand’s opener: though unfortunately, they faced Germany, and were thumped 6-0. Thailand was clearly not ready for this level of competition, losing their next game 7-0 to Canada, and their tournament ending with a 5-0 defeat to Australia. This is surely the worst performance by a host nation in the history of FIFA competition. Still, the crowds for the latter stages were decent, with 23,000 attending the final, Germany beating China 2-0. Brazil were eliminated at the semi-final stage, but Marta still took home the Golden Ball for best player. An overall average attendance of 11,089 was a positive.
The 2006 U-20 Women’s World Cup saw it move to a third different continent, hosted by Russia, and it would feature a surprising winner, with North Korea taking their first FIFA trophy: though perhaps that shouldn’t be considered a surprise, as the North Koreans had been dominating Asian competition in recent years. Indeed, the rapid development of women’s soccer in Asia as a whole, seen in the history of the U-20 tournament, is a remarkable story.
The age limit for the World Cup had been raised by one year to make it a U-20 event, with FIFA also instituting a U-17 FIFA Women’s World Cup, beginning play in 2008. The tournament was also expanded to 16 teams. Interestingly, the average age of players was almost exactly the same as in 2004 (18 years and 11 months), despite the new age limit. The tournament was a bit of a disappointment; European teams were weakened by it nearly coinciding with the UEFA U-19 competition, and attendance was extremely poor, barely reaching four figures for most games.
The hosts, Russia, went out at the quarter-final stage to China. The final between China and North Korea, the first between two Asian teams in global FIFA competition, was unfortunately a mudbath, played in pelting rain. According to the official report, the players were “enveloped in mud”, but “the Koreans, however, were not deterred by the conditions in the slightest and they attacked relentlessly with great determination.” The Koreans crushed the Chinese 5-0 in front of 8,500 soaked spectators. Curiously, no North Korean was named in FIFA’s top three players of the tournament, China’s Xiaoxu Ma taking the Golden Ball. Overall, with an average crowd of just 1,644 per game and a total of 52,630 spectators for the entire tournament, the U-20 Women’s World Cup had taken something of a step back.
Chile, 2008 U-20 Women’s World Cup host, presented a much greater success: the tournament saw more goals than ever (3.5 goals per game), and a decent enough average of 6,749 fans per game. More importantly, the host nation used the tournament as a springboard for women’s soccer in Chile, now in strong shape (one of its clubs, Everton, came fourth in the first Women’s Copa Libertadores staged in 2009). The Chilean government, then led by Michelle Bachelet, affirmed its support of the competition by rebuilding four stadia for the event and by supporting a new league championship for women. Unfortunately, results did not go well for Chile, losing all three games and exiting at the group stage, but the seeds were sown for future growth: surely the point of the competition existing. The United States won the U-20 Women’s World Cup for the first time since 2002, defeating the defending champions North Korea in the final 2-1 in front of 12,000 fans.
That brings us to 2010, and the tournament in Germany, which has a particular importance with the senior Women’s World Cup to be held there in 2011. Strong crowds and interest in this U-20 competition could presage what should be the most successful Women’s World Cup in terms of global media attention and attendance since USA ’99, given the strength of women’s soccer in Germany and the lack of any major competing global competitions next summer.