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|Japan's World Cup win in 2011 was proof for some that parity was growing in the women's game.|
One telling statistic lurked in plain sight among the results of the last Women's World Cup.
The 2011 tournament marked the first time in the history of the quadrennial event -- dating back to 1991 -- that no team had a double-digit differential between goals scored and goals allowed, either positive or negative.
Yes, there were a few one-sided matches, but gone were the routs of years past that made spectators squirm and long for a mercy rule. Only two teams, Canada and Equatorial Guinea, lost all three group matches. No team scored more than four goals in a match. The quality of play was better than ever, and it seemed global parity wasn't just talk anymore.
So, did it make sense to expand the field in 2015? FIFA, soccer's world governing body, had already concluded it did. Eighteen months before the first ball was struck in 2011, the federation announced that entries for the 2015 World Cup would increase from 16 to 24, the first expansion since the jump from 12 to 16 for the 1999 tournament held in the United States.
The potential downside is, there will be some teams that won't be up to the level. There could be two or three teams who are a little bit overwhelmed. But those are the growing pains I think that sports need to have at times.” -- U.S. women's national team coach Tom Sermanni on Women's World Cup expansion
There is general consensus that this is an appropriate nod to and nourishment for the growth of the women's game. But consequences, in the form of uneven competition, could be felt in the early stages of the tournament.
"All of us involved in the game want to make it as big as we can," U.S. women's national team coach Tom Sermanni recently told espnW.com. "To do that, we have to reach out to countries that might never get to a World Cup, and where the women's game isn't treated as seriously as perhaps it should be. A World Cup can be a catalyst for some countries to invest in the game.
"The potential downside is, there will be some teams that won't be up to the level. There could be two or three teams who are a little bit overwhelmed. But those are the growing pains I think that sports need to have at times."
Europe will send eight teams compared with five in 2011. Sermanni, like most, expects depth from that continent. The additional teams from other regions will include some first-time qualifiers or inconsistent teams that would be expected to struggle at the top level. Asia will send five teams, up from three in 2011; Africa will send three, up from two; Oceania's allocation will remain at one; and the Americas will divide up the rest, with host Canada qualifying automatically and one slot to be determined in a play-in between North America/Caribbean and South America.
The final eight teams in Asia's qualifying tournament in May 2014 are set, and at least one rookie country will be Canada-bound: Vietnam, Myanmar or Thailand. Defending champion Japan is expected back, but North Korea will be absent, banned from the World Cup for doping offenses in the last edition. African squads from Cameroon and South Africa foundered at the London 2012 Olympics (a 12-team competition) but also got some seasoning, and they will vie with Nigeria, Ghana and Equatorial Guinea for a first World Cup berth.
Costa Rica is generally regarded as having the best chance to join the U.S. and Mexico from CONCACAF. South America, where the game still lags far behind men's soccer as a cultural phenomenon, has produced only one top-three World Cup team: Brazil. Other candidates for 2015 from that region are Colombia, Argentina and potential World Cup debutants Chile and Venezuela.
Progress for a national team that reaches the World Cup isn't always linear, as Canada can attest. After reaching the semifinals in 2003, the next World Cup host was eliminated in group play in 2007 and finished last in 2011.
But veteran Canadian defender Carmelina Moscato said there is value in being at the tournament even for a badly overmatched side. "France killed us," she said, referring to a 4-0 drubbing in the second match in 2011. "But it showed us where we needed to be."
One-sided matches aren't entertaining, and a spate of them could raise the kind of critique leveled at women's ice hockey by International Olympic Committee chief Jacques Rogge at the 2010 Winter Games, when he noted the abyss between the world's top teams and the rest of the pack and said, "We cannot continue without improvement."
But coaches and players, including U.S. forward Abby Wambach, say women's soccer won't get deeper worldwide without opening the tent flaps to let more countries in. "It's a hard balance, but we have to have an understanding that this is big-picture building," Wambach said. "Some of these teams, truth be told, they might just get blown out of the water. But the experience those women will have will far outweigh those games."
Canada's Rhian Wilkinson agreed. "I think it's great for women's soccer," she said of the expanded field. "When you do that, initially, there will be some teams who aren't quite ready yet. It will raise the bar for those countries. I've been on a side that's been beaten like that. Scoring at will isn't any fun, either, but you have to go through those horrible steps.
"It'll be a steep and painful learning curve, and it depends on what you do with it. If the federations don't get behind [new qualifiers] and provide funding, there's nothing to be learned."