Better coaching, deeper talent and a greater commitment to women's teams have brought parity to the World Cup
ONE OF THE first things a person learns on a visit to China is that authentic Chinese cuisine looks very little like that stuff they serve at P.F. Chang's. A steady diet of fried whole frogs, pigs' tails and oxen intestines can wreak havoc on the sturdiest of stomachs, a lesson that the English women's team learned earlier this year on an exhibition tour. So when the team returned to China for its first World Cup appearance since 1995, it brought a chef. With settled tummies, the English lasses were responsible for one of the many eye-opening results in the tournament's first week: a nil-nil draw with defending champ Germany.
Of course, England's success can't be attributed solely to its diet. But the fact that the country's Football Association, which until the 1970s had written rules banning women from training on the same fields as men, sprang for an entourage that included a cook and a sports psychologist demonstrates that the nation has made a commitment to its women's team. And the English aren't alone.
The gap between the elite squads and the rest of the world is receding: Through the first two rounds of the preliminaries, only one of the 16 teams, Brazil, won both its games. "[At the first World Cup, in 1991,] there were five teams with a chance to win," says U.S. midfielder Kristine Lilly, the only player to have appeared in all five World Cups. "Now there are eight to 10. Teams have gotten better. There's more support—financial- and coaching-wise.'"
Perhaps no team has benefited more from improved leadership than China, which suffered a woeful performance in the Algarve Cup last March, when it lost 4--1 to Iceland. The 1999 World Cup runner-up, China had gone through six coaches in five years and dropped to No. 11 in the world before hiring its first non-Chinese—and female—coach, Marika Domanski-Lyfors of Sweden in April. Domanski-Lyfors employed, by Chinese standards, some feather-ruffling methods. She booted meddling association officials off the practice pitch, allowed players to go home for the holidays and put an end to the practice of belittling players in front of their teammates. In its Cup opener China responded with a 3--2 win over Norway (ranked fourth in the world); despite a 4--0 loss to Brazil, the Steel Roses were in good shape at week's end to advance to the quarterfinals.
And it's not just the coaches who have gotten better. "Before, there were very well-organized teams that could make it difficult for the U.S. tactically by sitting back, organizing and counterattacking, but the U.S. was just too dominant in terms of athletic ability," says U.S. coach Greg Ryan. "Now there are teams that have great athletes at every position."
Exhibit A: North Korea. Exactly what the ultrasecretive team has done to become one of the planet's elite teams is anybody's guess, but clearly the country has made a commitment to identifying talented young players and getting them in shape. In an opening 2--2 draw with the U.S., the North Koreans—who have three 15-year-olds on their roster—ran the Yanks ragged. "There were times in that game where I felt we were getting outplayed," says U.S. forward Abby Wambach. "That happens very rarely."
The U.S. rebounded with a 2--0 win over Sweden to virtually lock up a spot in the quarters. (The U.S. was to play Nigeria on Tuesday.) It had proved to be a tough road, but one the U.S. will have to get used to traveling. "We knew this was going to be a very tight World Cup," says Ryan. "This is no surprise. It's just the direction [the game] is going to continue to go."
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With the announcement this month that funding is in place, a women's pro league is expected to begin play in 2009, which will be a mixed blessing for U.S. soccer. While it will give under-the-radar players a chance to prove themselves—the WUSA, which folded in 2003 after three seasons, helped World Cup starters Abby Wambach and Shannon Boxx attract the attention of the U.S. staff—league commitments will cut into the time players can devote to national team training. (The U.S., for instance, has had 37 games in 20 months.) "The league is great," says Wambach (above), "but the more time we have to spend together, the better we perform in world championships."
LOCKSTEP Om Jong Ran and North Korea played Heather O'Reilly and the U.S. to a tie.