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Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Mexico, England hope to raise soccer's profile

By Joanne C. Gerstner

DRESDEN, Germany -- It's a dream shared by Mexican coach Leonardo Cuellar and English coach Hope Powell.

They envision a world of opportunity for female soccer players starting from their childhood. They see girls wanting to play soccer, hoping to become the best and, someday, aspiring to represent their nation in the World Cup, Olympics and other international competitions.

Cuellar and Powell see girls becoming women, being able to freely pursue their soccer careers in college and at the professional level.

The seeds have been planted for their dream, reaching various levels of growth in their countries. But Mexico and England, both part of Group B, see the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup as a potent fertilizer to help the seeds grow into mighty oaks in the soccer world.

England tied Mexico 1-1 in Wolfsburg on Monday, but the result of the game has less of an impact on the greater future. The very existence and scope of this World Cup is the ultimate power to Cuellar and Powell, hopefully cultivating more fans -- and future players -- into the women's game.

"In the past 10 years, there have been a lot of changes in hearts and minds," Powell said. "[During the World Cup,] in England, the profile is raised, the participation of young girls increases, the game is valued. We want to be viewed in England as a top-class sport.

"These girls are athletes, and they work very, very hard to represent their country. My hope, especially for us in England, is to raise the profile of the sport and especially around the world."

It's fitting that Cuellar and Powell take on the role of advocates for the game.

Cuellar is a trailblazer, as he is the first Women's World Cup coach to have played in the men's World Cup. He was a midfielder for Mexico in the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. He's a passionate voice for women's soccer in Mexico, having served as its coach since 1998.

Cuellar helps Mexico's efforts to expand its soccer programs with an under-15 national team debuting later this summer. Building depth and opportunity will get more girls into the feeder-system programs.

Powell also is a pioneer, having played on England's first World Cup team in 1995, then becoming the coach in 1998. A professional league was launched in England this summer thanks to the growing popularity of the women's game.

English and Mexican women's soccer, to different degrees, are trying to carve out their niches in a field dominated by the men's game. It has required a shift in society as women become more respected as world-class soccer players.

The English women's national program is well-established, while the Mexican program is striving to grow.

Progress is measured in inches, not in miles, but Cuellar still records progress.

"One of the changes we've had is a change of culture," Cuellar said. "Right now, we need the Women's World Cup to show the world the possibilities but also to look to more participation by the young girls. It's getting better and better day by day.

"We see, with great happiness, that the younger girls, for their birthdays or for Christmas in Mexico, ask for soccer shoes or soccer uniforms."

Cuellar paused and smiled, showing his pleasure.

"It is all very good," Cuellar said. "It is."