By Tim Grainey – The anticipation and excitement are building for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup with Canada hosting the event at 6 venues between June 6 and July 5.  The 7th playing of the Women’s World Cup will be historic with the tournament field expanding from 16 to 24 teams, all games being played on artificial turf, and Canada hosting the event for the first time but with it making its 3rd stop on North American shores.

Expanded Tournament

The competitive level of play in Germany 2011 with no overwhelming lopsided results (i.e. Germany 11-0 over Argentina in 2007, Norway 7-2 over Ghana in 2007, Norway 7-1 over Korea Republic in 2003 and Germany 7-1 over Russia in the quarterfinals in 2003) was a key factor in expanding this year’s tournament field.

The Netherlands celebrate qualifying for the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup

The Netherlands celebrate qualifying for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup

The addition of 8 teams from 16 to 24 has provided a huge boost to the game globally.  7 nations, Cameroon, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Ivory Coast, Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland, will be making their WWC debut.  Canada 2015 could be a rude awakening for some of these debutants and everyone from players, to coaches to federation brass as well as fans need to realize the success was qualifying and building the foundation for the women’s game in their country.

The biggest longshots are probably Thailand and Ecuador.

Ecuador used home field advantage at 6,000 foot Quito in the CONMEBOL qualifiers to finish third, which meant they had to play the CONCACAF fourth place qualifier for a final spot. Ecuador went 180 minutes without scoring against Trinidad and Tobago until they scored from a long free-kick in injury time in the away leg before 20,000 Trinidadian fans, overcoming the favored Soca Princesses, coached by current Houston Dash and former University of Notre Dame head coach Randy Waldron.

Thailand meanwhile finished fifth in the eight team Asian Cup qualifiers, but their path to the finals—defeating host Vietnam in the fifth place game—was made tremendously easier since North Korea was banned from participating in this World Cup cycle for five positive doping tests during the 2011 WWC Finals.

With an increase in the number of teams comes an increase in the number of games.  Canada 2015 will see the number of games increasing from 32 to 52.  This will add another hurdle, the Round of 16, for the top teams to negotiate.  In the past, the teams advanced directly to the quarterfinal round.  The top 2 teams from each 4-team group will advance with best 4 3rd place finishers joining them in the elimination round.

By qualifying for the first time, the Cameroon women’s national team shares something in common with their men’s national team.  Cameroon qualified for their first World Cup in 1982 when the men’s tournament made a similar expansion from 16 to 24 teams.  The Indomitable Lions were dumped out after the group stage in 1982 but 8 years later they became the first African side to make the World Cup quarterfinals.

FIFA is no doubt hoping that the women’s game will see a similar growth and competitive balance with this year’s expansion.

Controversy Before the First Kick

Canada and Zimbabwe were the only 2 nations to bid for the right to host the 2015 WWC and once the Africa federation withdrew their proposal in 2011 the quadrennial tournament was headed back to North America.  With harsh winter conditions, grass fields are not viable in many markets in Canada and the Canada Soccer Association’s (CSA) plan from the start was to use artificial grass at some or all venues.

Games will be played at 6 venues.  They are using 2 indoor stadiums (Montreal and Vancouver), 3 stadiums that host Canadian Football League teams (Edmonton, Ottawa and Winnipeg), and the 10,000 seat Moncton Stadium. Toronto, whose national stadium is now grass after initially having artificial turf when it opened in 2007, was unable to participate since the city is hosting the Pan American Games this summer.

abby wambach

the USA’s Abby Wambach was 1 player pushing to have matches played on natural grass.

The issue was a non-starter in 2011 when Canada was awarded the hosting rights but by 2014 players were up in arms.  A group of players brought a lawsuit in the Canadian human rights court claiming they were being discriminated against since the men’s 2014 World Cup in Brazil (and all previous senior level World Cups) were played on natural grass.

In the CSA’s defense, the federation has struggled for years for funding and is not flush with money. The CSA does not have the funds to convert these fields to grass, even on a temporary basis using trays, as was first done in the Detroit Silverdome for the Men’s World Cup in 1994. The CSA’s willingness to stage the Women’s World Cup when essentially no other country wanted to is all credit to them. In a country where about a third of all soccer players are women and more youth play the sport in total compared with hockey—long held as an institution—the CSA saw the tournament as an opportunity to continue to grow the game; they should be commended for their foresight.

The Women’s World Cups do generate some income for FIFA, but nowhere near a level at which FIFA could support the cost of converting multiple fields to grass. FIFA has remained steadfast that there would be no changes from the original proposed field plan, even though a number of players around the world were party to the complaint.

U.S. forward Abby Wambach on January 12, 2015 presented FIFA with a compromise when she was in Zurich for the Ballon D’Or awards, asking for the semifinals, third-place match and final to be played on natural grass. The other 48 matches could be played on artificial turf. Wambach says she spoke “openly” and “candidly” with FIFA secretary general Jérôme Valcke but summarized the discussion when she said: “FIFA has made their decision and they are sticking to it.”

FIFA’s head of women’s competition, Tatjana Haenni, has also clearly stated: “We play on artificial turf and there is no Plan B.”

FIFA bylaws state that playing surfaces for World Cups must be uniform and that is not a new mandate.

The suit was dropped last week but brought forward many good questions regarding the use of turf.  The questions can only be answered by playing the game but the lawsuit will no doubt change the way the bidding process looks at the use of turf in the future as well as how the game at the highest level plays out on an artificial surface.

Huge Boost for Canada and Around the Globe

The Women’s World Cup is coming to North America for an unprecedented 3rd time with the U.S. hosting in 1999 and 2003 but for anyone thinking Canada is not a soccer market or is not ready to host the global event, think again.

This World Cup will be well supported by the Canadians. After all, this is the same nation that thirteen years ago, staged the inaugural U-20 FIFA World Cup in 2002 as a low key event in Edmonton, Victoria and Vancouver. It ended up being a massive boost to the domestic game, with almost 50,000 fans coming to their 2-1 overtime defeat to the U.S. in the final in Edmonton and an additioanl 900,000 watching on national television.

The tournament changed the game in Canada.  Forward Christine Sinclair, goalkeeper Erin McLeod and winger Brittany Baxter (Timko) started in that tournament and are still in the national team pool. The core of that team then led the full national side to fourth place the next fall in the 2003 World Cup in the U.S.—an historic achievement considering that Canada had never advanced beyond the first round in the past. They continued to build with a Bronze Medal at the London Olympics.

Last summer’s FIFA U-20 World Cup—which FIFA now uses as a dry run for the Women’s World Cup—drew approximately 275,000 fans. CSA hopes to have 1.5 million in attendance this summer at World Cup matches, to match the figure from the multisport 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games.  To put this in perspective, Germany 2011 drew 845,711 fans for the matches although admittedly over a 32 game tournament.

Canada will no doubt get some help from their southern neighbors, the USA.  The first two U.S. national team games (versus Australia and Sweden) are in Winnipeg and then they play Australia in Edmonton. Should they win the group, the Americans would play a Round of 16 match in Edmonton, then a quarterfinal in Ottawa and a semifinal in Montreal. The third place game would be in Edmonton and the Final in Vancouver. There certainly should be cross border traffic to cheer them on, particularly for Winnipeg, Vancouver and Montreal matches, providing Americans across the country a chance to attend. TV telecast time will be during afternoons and evenings so that should spur ratings on ABC/ESPN networks.

The boost does not stop on North American shores, however.  The games will expand the footprint of the game globally and present role models of successful women to young girls, particularly in countries where women’s sports are not encouraged.

The young national team coach of surprising Ecuador, Vanessa Arauz (25) explained how she fought stereotyping when she decided to coach: “One of the most important and yet most difficult steps in my life was to make the decision to get involved in football, saying important is understandable, but why difficult? Maybe most of my colleagues who played and continue to play football, when they decided to do it, no one said to them: ‘Hey this sport is not for men’, but in my case many times I did hear: ‘Hey this sport is not for women.’ This has been a very hard road.”

Ecuador and Thailand never would have qualified for a 16 team tournament but this is also the first time at the finals for European sides like Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland, which all have strong domestic leagues and been competitive within Europe for the past half-dozen years.

And hopefully the Women’s World Cup will help spur new women’s leagues in countries without one and support for the sport in areas where it has a low presence: i.e. only four teams in Oceania attempted to qualify last fall out of 11 members at the Oceania Football Confederation Women’s Nations Cup in Papua New Guinea.

The 2011 Women’s World Cup is remembered for Japan’s stylish play in winning the title, the American’s exciting run to the Final Game and sharp increase in TV viewing. After the 2015 Women’s World Cup, we hope the event drives increased respect for the sport globally, continued growth in television ratings in Canada and the U.S.–spilling over to NWSL gates—and increased professional soccer expansion in both nations along with a unanimous opinion that increasing the Women’s World Cup to 24 teams was the correct choice, as it provided more top level women’s games to attendees and viewers around the globe.

Tim Grainey was the contributing editor for women’s soccer for Soccer365.com, the predecessor to 365.WorldSoccerShop.com, in his regular column The Grainey Report.  He will be posting stories on the FIFA Women’s World Cup over the coming months as the first kick of Canada 2015 draws near.  He is the author of Beyond Bend it Like Beckham. And you can follow Tim on Twitter @TimGrainey.

The best selection of officially licensed gear of the 2015 Women’s World Cup and the 32 team’s competing in Canada will be available through the Official FIFA Online Store, World Soccer Shop, and other fine soccer retailers.

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