[WOMEN'S WORLD CUP SPOTLIGHT] By reaching and winning the Women's World Cup final in its first appearance, Japan brought some credibility to assertions that the women's game is more competitive than the men's at the senior level.
The statistics don’t really bear this out, though comparisons are difficult because the women’s game is still growing and unlike the men’s game, its Olympic and World Cup eligibility rules are the same. The men’s Olympic tournament is an under-23 competition (plus three overage players) and so only the World Cup is valid as a reference point to women’s international soccer.
Comparisons between the two versions are also complicated by the much more arduous qualifying schedules played by men’s teams. In recent World Cups, traditional powers such as England (1994), France (1994), and the Netherlands (2002) have failed to even qualify for the final tournament. Greece, host and winner of the 2004 European Championship, didn’t make it to the World Cup held two years later.
Only China, host of the first women’s world championship in 1991 and runner-up to the USA in the 1996 Olympic competition and 1999 WWC, has fallen from prominence among the major powers in women’s soccer.
In the 10 major women’s competitions held since the inaugural women’s world championship in 1991, Japan is the fourth winner. The USA leads the way with five titles: the 1991 and 1999 WWC crowns, and the 1996, 2004, and 2008 Olympic gold medals. Germany has won the Women’s World Cup twice, and Norway has captured one of each. The USA is also the only nation to reach the semifinals in each of those 10 women’s competitions.
Three years ago, Japan became the eighth different country to reach the semifinals of a major women’s competition, which it used as a springboard to its 2011 world championship. It played the USA twice in that Olympic tournament, losing, 1-0, in the group phase and, 4-2, in the semifinals. In between, it stunned host China, 2-0, in a quarterfinal that radically altered the women’s game not only in Asia, but globally as well.
France’s appearance in this year’s final four increased that number to nine and also clinched the French a spot in next year’s Olympic women’s competition. As Japan has shown, rapid improvement is possible.
On the men’s side, in the past 10 World Cups, 17 countries have filled the 40 semifinal slots. Many more nations have fielded men’s teams than women’s teams during that period and since 1998, 32 nations have contested the World Cup, as opposed to 16 for the recently concluded WWC.
The Olympic women’s tournament started in 1996 with just eight teams, and only 12 competed in 2008, so direct comparisons are of limited validity. What is encouraging is not just Japan’s triumph and France’s advancement, but first-time participants Mexico and Colombia.
By reaching the Women’s World Cup, Colombia also qualifies for the 2012 Olympics along with Brazil and can continue to build on its debut. Mexico’s initial participation in a major women’s tournament increases competition for the two Concacaf Olympic slots to be hosted by Canada next January.
Six men’s teams have won the World Cup in the 10 competitions held since 1974. Unlike the USA’s dominance on women’s side, the titles have been spread out: Argentina, (West) Germany, Italy and Brazil have each won two; and France (1998) and Spain (2010) have broken through to win the trophy for the first time.
The World Cup has also produced surprise semifinalists: Bulgaria and Sweden in 1994, Croatia in 1998, co-host South Korea and Turkey in 2002, Uruguay in 2010. Despite fewer participating nations and greater obstacles to overcome, the women’s game is getting deeper as well as better.