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Mar 21, 2012

Solo: Women's game still on the rise

When Saki Kumagai stroked home her penalty to serve up Japan's first taste of World Cup glory last July, it provided a fittingly dramatic end to a watershed tournament for women's football. The final, awash with ardour, captured the imagination of the wider football fanbase like no other in the history of the women's game, and attracted more Tweets per second than any other event, sporting or otherwise, has ever managed.

However, the long-term development of the women's game, which remains woefully under-funded and under-supported all over the globe, is dependent on more than just a place under the heading 'social network' in the Guinness Book of Records. The United States has long been considered the Valhalla of the sport from the outside; a country where a competitive college system and more engaged supporters provide the perfect environment to nurture talented female players. In truth, this romantic view is wide of the mark. While the national team's star-spangled banner may have sparkled in the glare of the international spotlight over the past decade - the domestic game has been in a state of flux.

That harsh reality was brought home when, less than six months after the heartache of the World Cup final, the country's elite league - Women's Professional Soccer (WPS)- was suspended indefinitely. The division, whose teams provided 15 of USA's 21-woman squad for the World Cup, claimed to be facing "significant challenges, including a lengthy and expensive legal battle with a former owner". The dispute in question was with Dan Borislow - the man behind magicJack, the South Florida club formerly known as Washington Freedom before he rebranded and relocated them. He was at the centre of several disagreements with the league in magicJack's inaugural 2011 season, and WPS terminated the franchise in October - a decision that provoked an ugly legal wrangle.

It is not the first time the elite women's league has shut down in the States; the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) was formed in 2000 in an attempt to build on the wave of good feeling that followed USA's 1999 World Cup triumph, but just three years later it joined the realm of the defunct. On that occasion, as in the past couple of months, it was left to the Women's Premier Soccer League (WPSL) and the W-League - both formed in the mid-90s - to pick up the burden of being the country's pre-eminent football divisions.

USA goalkeeper Hope Solo left the troublesome magicJack last month, joining Seattle Sounders after becoming disillusioned with the constant bickering. She has been at the heart of the national team's success in recent years, producing particularly memorable displays to help her side defeat Brazil in both the 2008 Olympic final and 2011 World Cup quarter-final, but has also experienced first-hand the problems that have prevented women's football from flourishing at home.

"I think the concept of seeking fame and fortune in women's football in the States is a bit idyllic," Solo tells ESPNsoccernet. "Look at all the teams in America that have folded, and the leagues. The WUSA folded, we waited six years to bring back a new league in the WPS and that league has now suspended operations as well - who knows if it will ever come back. I think the German and the Swedish leagues are the best in the world at the moment in terms of organisation and prestige and I think those are the ones that will continue to grow and become the most successful. I think we have a long way to go in America."

Having tested herself in Europe earlier in her career, Solo has experienced football culture on two different continents; playing for Sweden's Goteborg FC in 2004 and Lyon in 2005, her eyes were opened to life in a country where nothing can usurp football as the favoured pastime of the masses.

"I played in Europe and it was a great experience, not just because of my team-mates and the coaches we had, but from the fans and the city itself - I played in Gothenburg and I played in Lyon and soccer was everywhere," Solo explains. "At that time in my life, it really jump-started my career and really helped me find myself as a person and player.

"It was a difficult decision to move back to the States but I wanted to do my bit to really help promote the game and grow the sport in America. It was never the same, though. I never felt the same passion for the game in the States and there were a lot of headaches, a lot of obstacles to overcome - it didn't just run itself for the love of the game because soccer is not the No. 1 sport as it is in Europe. It was tough and though I tried to do the right thing, looking at things now with the league suspended and many of the teams I have played in folded, I wish I remained in Europe."

Despite the numerous obstacles, there are still reasons to be hopeful for the progress of the women's game in the USA. Their World Cup finalists were treated (and Tweeted) like heroes on their return and Solo's own appearance on hit TV show Dancing With The Stars suggests that the long-awaited absorption into mainstream American culture may be closer than first thought. Even the embarrassment of WPS' extinction has been tempered by the speedy creation of a new division - the WPSL Elite League, which will be run by and alongside the WPSL. Nevertheless, having watched plenty of false dawns before, Solo's optimism is cautious.

"When the Olympics and World Cups come around, that's when you see the real outpouring of support that there really is for female football," Solo says. "It's fantastic but we're looking for longevity, support on a year to year basis and that's the difficult part. What we did do at the World Cup was one of the most amazing experiences I have had because we really felt like something bigger than the tournament itself. I won the gold medal in Beijing in 2008, but losing the World Cup final was tempered by seeing the growth of the game and the support on a global stage - it was one of the most remarkable experiences I am ever going to have in my sports career.

"The women's game has fought for years and in all honesty it's just the reality of women's professional sport. That's the world we live in - it's an uphill battle but it is growing and getting better and we have to fight the battles as they come. If we hadn't fought all the battles we have over the last decade then we wouldn't be able to make a living as we all can now.

"I think there has been progress in terms of a growth of people's knowledge of the game and a feeling that the women's game is here to stay. But in reality what are needed is more sponsors and investors with deeper pockets, with a good business plan. I think the people behind the WPS might have delved in a little too quickly without realising quite how much it would cost to run and with perhaps not the best business plan. But the World Cup definitely helped the game and increased the awareness of lots of people."

Discussing the World Cup final does not seem as painful for Solo as might have been expected. While defeat is always difficult for any professional athlete to take, the USA No. 1 recognises that the Japan team that took home the trophy was one to be admired; the attractive passing football executed by the Nadeshiko was a signpost for the future of women's football. Solo is hoping to be a part of that future and has set her sights on a place at the 2013 World Cup, by which time she will be 33, while a more immediate goal is overcoming a talented field to claim Olympic glory at London 2012.

"I will find it very hard to retire without a World Cup, so I see myself being involved again in three years time in Canada," she says. "Right now, though I am focused on the Olympics and I want to play at Wembley Stadium so much in that final. But there is work to be done - we just came off the back of a difficult tournament in Portugal [the 2012 Algarve Cup], where we lost [in the group stage] to Japan again.

"It goes to show that every federation seems to be growing and putting more money into the women's game, and are developing players from a younger age who are more soccer-savvy than the American players. We are still athletic but the game is beautiful and that is the style we need to build in order to keep winning: we have a long way to go."

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