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Women's World Cup: Don't Hate the Players, or the Game

Why you should still embrace the tournament, despite FIFA's spectacular fails.

Bob Mackin 8 Jun

North Vancouver-based journalist Bob Mackin, a regular contributor to The Tyee, has reported for local, regional, national and international media outlets since 1990. Find his Tyee articles here.

An injury time penalty kick scored by Canadian captain Christine Sinclair against China delighted the sellout crowd in Edmonton at the June 6 game that launched the seventh FIFA Women's World Cup.

The biggest single team sporting event for women on the planet got bigger since its previous edition in Germany four years ago, expanding from 16 teams to 24 and 32 matches to 52. The final is July 5 in Vancouver.

It comes at a crucial time, as the first global soccer tournament to begin in the wake of the sensational arrests of FIFA members for alleged corruption.

"It's an opportunity for women's football to shine some light onto the game that has perhaps lost a bit of its moral compass," said Victor Montagliani, chair of the Canada 2015 national organizing committee.

With international soccer governance in turmoil, here's a handy guide to why you should still embrace the Women's World Cup -- and shun FIFA at the same time.

It's breaking stereotypes

The world will be watching Canada 2015, perhaps with the notion that it's a frozen country where hockey is the inhabitants' obsession.

They would only be partially correct. Last year, there were more than 800,000 Canadians registered to play soccer. Of that, 340,000 were women and girls. By comparison, 635,000 Canadians registered in hockey but only 86,600 were female. For every woman or girl playing hockey, there were almost four playing soccer.

The high cost of hockey equipment is one reason. There are also opportunities to play and study on scholarships for degrees at well-known U.S. universities, as numerous members of the women's national team program have achieved.

It's making history

Canada's first women's national soccer team training camp opened in Winnipeg on Canada Day, 1986. The team went south to Minnesota and split a pair of matches with the U.S., losing 2-0 on July 7 and winning 2-1 on July 9.

Not until 1990 in Winnipeg did Canada host its first home national team match. Charmaine Hooper exerted herself as an early star. She played 129 matches and scored 71 goals in a career that straddled three decades.

Sinclair, however, is arguably the best player, female or male, that Canada has produced. She is a six-time FIFA women's player of the year nominee. Maybe 2015 is her year?

The Burnaby native debuted on the senior squad as a 16-year-old rookie in 2000 and led Canada to be runner-up to the U.S. at the 2002 Under-19 Women's World Championship. The next year, Canada upset 1999 runner-up China en route to a fourth-place finish in the 2003 Women's World Cup.

Sinclair led Canada to bronze at the London 2012 Olympics, the first Canadian summer Olympic team medal since Berlin 1936. It could have been silver or gold, but for the controversial semi-final match with the U.S.

Sinclair, with 154 goals in 224 international matches, plays professionally for the Portland Thorns of the National Women's Soccer League, the third attempt at a pro circuit for women.

The pressure is on "Sincy" for Canada to rise to the top of the table in the 2015 Women's World Cup. She passed her first test on June 6.

Men in the backseat

While Canada's women have consistently occupied the top 10 in FIFA rankings, the men's team has little to show for its efforts.

The shallow trophy case includes Olympic gold from St. Louis 1904, when Ontario's Galt FC beat two American sides in the three-team tournament, and the 2000 CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Canada's lone entry in the men's World Cup was at Mexico 1986 with a team of veterans from the defunct North American Soccer League. They held their own, but didn't come home with a goal. The promise of a return to the big show has never been fulfilled. Its campaign for a spot in Brazil 2014 ended with the squad hitting rock-bottom, an 8-1 loss to Honduras.

It's about waving hello to the world

We know it simply as "The Wave," but play-by-play announcers are certain to inform global viewers that fans at Canada are performing the "Mexican wave."

Though many around the world saw the popular section-by-section, arms up, stand-up cheer for the first time during Mexico 1986, it was actually invented by professional cheerleader Krazy George Henderson at the 1981 World Series in Oakland.

Krazy George brought it to Canada the next year for BC Lions games in Vancouver's Empire Stadium. When BC Place Stadium opened in June 1983, fans of the NASL Whitecaps took the wave indoors.

It's a time to talk

During the Olympics, action and analysis go virtually around the clock. It is a different story during a month-long World Cup. When there are no matches, there could be a chance to have a national or international discussion about the bigger issues of the status of women in Canada, in sport and beyond.

This is the country where the Supreme Court of Canada opted not to hear the case of women who lost a battle to ski jump at the 2010 Winter Olympics. Their dreams were realized at Sochi 2014.

Bigger questions could be considered, such as, why does the federal government resist calls an inquiry to the tragedy of missing and murdered aboriginal women? What about women struggling to survive a few blocks away from BC Place, in the Downtown Eastside?

Carrie Serwetnyk, the first woman in Canada's Soccer Hall of Fame and leader of the Equal Play FC campaign, told The Tyee there may be no better time than now to talk about these issues.

Why shun FIFA?

It's still an old boys' club

President Sepp Blatter, who is on his way out, once famously suggested women play in tighter shorts, so as to gain more male TV viewers. The organization has been too slow to advance women up the administrative and executive ranks. Not until 2012 did FIFA add a woman to the executive committee.

"We should have more women in the decision-making positions, but it's not the same as women's football. I also try to make that difference," said Tatjana Haenni, FIFA's deputy director of competitions. "One is women in football and one is women's football. You need to look at both areas, and both areas need much more support and development."

The old boys' club that is FIFA got a wake-up call May 27 when Swiss police raided a Zurich luxury hotel and U.S. authorities charged 14 current and former FIFA officials and associates with corruption.

Hosting controversies

To be a World Cup host, whether it's the male or female tournament, should be a badge of honour. When the organization decided to make the extraordinary award of two World Cups on one day in December 2010, it didn't make the safe choices of England and the U.S. for 2018 and 2022 respectively.

England, the cradle of the game, last hosted in 1966 when it also won its only championship. The U.S. held it in 1994 and set attendance records. FIFA instead chose to go where the oil and gas are, Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022.

Now, thanks to the work of journalist Andrew Jennings, questions are being asked about the extent of bribery within the organization.

Russia and Qatar could lose their hosting rights if evidence of bribery in the bidding process comes to light, the chairman of FIFA's audit and compliance committee recently said.

International Trade Union Confederation's Play Fair campaign estimates more than 1,400 workers on World Cup projects have died, many from impoverished Southeast Asian nations.

Ironically empty slogans

Flags emblazoned with the slogans "My Game is Fair Play" and "For the Game. For the World" fly outside the Westin Bayshore, FIFA's headquarters hotel in Vancouver. Swiss and U.S. authorities beg to differ on both counts, and they have the guilty-of-bribery pleadings of former FIFA vice-president Chuck Blazer to back them up.

While other sports, chiefly baseball, have been rocked by doping scandals, soccer's integrity has suffered not only from high-level bribery, but from revelations of rampant match-fixing. We can thank Canadian journalist Declan Hill for uncovering these unsavoury details with his book The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime. Canada played a role in this sordid history: at the 1986 Merlion Cup in Singapore, four players were caught in a match-fixing scandal.

Women players turfed

International players, led by U.S. captain Abby Wambach, failed to convince FIFA to change its mind about artificial turf in the six host cities. Never before has there been an all-artificial turf World Cup and players, like Wambach, say it changes the game and puts them at risk of injury. FIFA says its accredited surfaces are just as safe as well-kept real grass.

FIFA let Canada use artificial turf rather than truck-in temporary grass pitches to the stadiums. Temporary grass pitches, as unsustainable as they might appear, would have been a short controversy at best. But the use of plastic pitches will hang over the tournament.  [Tyee]

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