U.S. and European grip on World Cup might be waning
The championship match of the Women's World Cup has consistently been the domain of the United States and Europe. Only once in the first four tournaments, when China played the United States for the title eight years ago, did a team from outside that exclusive geographic club make an appearance.But the final wall of women's football may be crumbling. Last fall, North Korea became the first Asian team to capture a major international competition, defeating Asian rival China to claim the Under-20 World Championship in Russia. Three years ago, Brazil took silver in the 2004 Olympics with a performance in the gold-medal match that even the victorious Americans conceded controlled the field. And if any one individual is going to deliver the coup de grace to old-world supremacy at this year's event, it's only fitting that it be a Brazilian. Through the opening week of the World Cup, Marta has been the event's most compelling performer and the pulse of a Brazilian team that followed up a 5-0 win against overmatched New Zealand with an even more impressive 4-0 win against a Chinese side that had looked so well organized in its opener against Denmark. Abby Wambach leads the United States with fearless physical play and underrated technical skill, Birgit Prinz paces Germany with tactical precision and surprising speed, but Brazil's star is more about the sublime than the subtle. Where other stars are artisans, she is an artist. And a continent is waiting to be inspired. Almost 70,000 fans watched in person when Brazil scored a 5-0 win against United States (represented by an U-20 team), in the final of this summer's Pan-Am Games in Rio Di Janeiro. In a country where women were legally prohibited from playing football as recently as 1981, that kind of support, even for a major final, marked a monumental shift. As Argentina proved in its 11-0 loss against Germany, South American women's soccer is still a work in progress. Argentina beat Brazil, long the continent's only viable international competitor, in World Cup qualifying but looked like unorganized amateurs against the defending champions in Shanghai. "Definitely I didn't like this result," FIFA president Sepp Blatter said the day after Germany's win. "I am honest to say that, because when in the opening match you have a result of 11-0, and the team that conceded 11 goals is the reigning champion in South America ... this is not good when we go forward in the future to have [a World Cup field of] 24 teams." But with a talent like Marta, South American soccer has never looked so promising. With her team locked in a tight 0-0 tie against China last Saturday, Marta raced past two defenders to claim a long ball, deftly flicked the ball up and over the charging keeper without breaking stride, and then calmly finished into an open net. Forced to play her club soccer in Sweden, limiting her availability for the few games the Brazilian federation schedules for its national team, Marta is the key to success for a Brazilian team loaded with individual talent but short on the kind of training and support other women's soccer powers receive. "Lot of talented players, pretty disorganized in organization," summed up United States coach Greg Ryan. A championship might spark a groundswell of support ensuring future Brazilian teams have more opportunity to build a team out of individual brilliance -- and producing even more talented players for that matter. It is that challenge which awaits Marta. Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.