Women's World Cup Set to Open Saturday Amid FIFA Bribe Scandal

Sponsors Caught Between Condemning Scandal and Focusing on the Game

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Credit: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg News

For Brazil's Marta, the record five-time soccer player of the year, the FIFA bribery scandal won't detract from what's shaping up to be the biggest and most successful Women's World Cup tournament.

"I believe it won't influence the organization of the tournament in Canada," she said by phone from the airport in Sao Paulo. "I'm still very positive about it."

The resignation of FIFA President Sepp Blatter and the probe into alleged kickbacks at soccer's world governing body haven't lessened enthusiasm in Canada for the Women's World Cup, which is poised to set attendance records and attract more teams than ever before.

About 900,000 tickets have been sold, including a sellout of 50,000 for Canada's first match on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, according to team spokeswoman Carrie Croft. That would eclipse the 2011 tourney in Germany that sold 845,711 tickets.

The event has been expanded to 24 teams from 16, demonstrating the rising popularity of the tournament first held in China 24 years ago.

If the U.S. and Canadian teams make it deep into the tournament, total attendance could hit a record 1.5 million, said Richard Scott, a spokesman for the Canadian Soccer Association.

Transcending negativity
"We want to put on a performance in these next 30 days where essentially all that stuff is put to the side because people are going to see the positive side of the sport," said Carmelina Moscato, a Canadian defender. "That can transcend all the negativity at the moment and the corruption."

Mr. Blatter, the self-proclaimed "godfather" of women's soccer, presided over a surge in the sport, with participating teams and attendance rising at most global tournaments.

His promotion of women's soccer wasn't without missteps, though. The Swiss executive said in 2004 that female players wearing tighter shorts could attract more viewers.

Turf war
The Canadian event, meanwhile, has been marred by a literal turf war. All the games will be played on artificial turf in stadiums generally used by Canadian Football League teams. A group of female players appealed to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, arguing FIFA would never make men play World Cup matches on turf, which they say leads to more injuries and higher ball bounces. They withdrew the case in January.

"It's unfortunate we had to deal with the Astroturf issue" and now "the corruption within FIFA," said Michelle Akers, the former U.S. midfielder and FIFA player of the century. "Once the games start I think the attention will go back to the game," she said by phone from her horse farm in Powder Springs, Georgia.

The challenge for the 2015 tournament is to keep the focus on the field to ensure the women's game continues to grow.

"With the Women's World Cup it's a phenomenal opportunity for this country, so I worry that the politics will override what's actually happening," said Laura Misener, an assistant professor who studies the social impact of sporting events at Western University in London, Ontario. "I would really hope that's not going to happen, however I'm not overly optimistic."

Sponsors caught
Major sponsors and local organizers are torn between wanting to condemn any wrongdoing and giving up on a beloved sport or its players, said Steven Lewis, president of the XMC marketing and sponsorship agency in Toronto.

"The women's game is more popular now than ever," Mr. Lewis said. The FIFA scandal is "absolutely a distraction," and "what has been brought into question here is the integrity of management, not the integrity of the sport."

Women's World Cup sponsors include Coca-Cola, Adidas, Gazprom, Visa and Hyundai/Kia.

Norway defender Marita Lund said after a practice Wednesday in Ottawa that her team has already met a lot of fans in the nation's capital who want to take photos.

"Everything has expanded in a positive way," she said. "More women want to play soccer and it's more entertaining to watch," she said.

On the field, two-time World Cup champion U.S. is favored to win, led by forward Abby Wambach. Other favorites include Germany and Brazil, led by Marta, according to the Paddy Power betting website. Host Canada is the sixth favorite. Germany has won the tournament twice, while Norway and Japan have one win each.

The matches are spread across six cities from Vancouver on the Pacific coast to Moncton, New Brunswick, near the Atlantic coast. The final is set for July 5 at B.C. Place Stadium in Vancouver.

Ms. Akers, who holds the record for most goals in a World Cup with 10, said that companies should do more to boost women's soccer.

"Part of their market is women, so why don't they use these female soccer players who are kick-ass athletes and people to help sell their products?" she asked.

~ Bloomberg News ~

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