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Can World Cup spark women's soccer surge?

By Greg Duke, CNN
  • Holders Germany are hosting the women's 2011 World Cup soccer tournament
  • The Germans are aiming to win the tournament for a third successive time
  • The United States enter the World Cup with the highest-profile domestic league
  • Six-team American professional league pays the best wages in the world

(CNN) -- It is arguably the biggest sporting event of the European summer with a total of 32 matches, involving 16 countries in nine packed stadiums -- the women's soccer World Cup is upon us.

The female form of football has historically struggled to compete with the burgeoning global popularity of the men's game but there is hope the 2011 tournament will prove -- in the words of FIFA president Sepp Blatter -- a "new milestone in the development of women's football."

That's because Germany, as a large market rich footballing culture, is seen as a country that could spearhead the growth of a European game which currently lags behind American women's soccer in funding, support and participation.

There is certainly much to inspire the home crowd, for the host side is bidding to enter the record books with a third successive tournament victory. A win which many in German football hope could prove a catalyst for future growth.

"We want this tournament to be a role model for all future World Cup competitions," Heike Ullrich, head of women's football at the German Football Association, told CNN.

"We have been preparing for this tournament for three years, making sure women's soccer is a focal point for the people of Germany, not just at the highest level but at grass roots level as well. All matches are being shown live on German TV, with a minimum of 15 HD cameras.

"It is the biggest event of the German sporting year. We have sold 700,000 tickets for the tournament and all of Germany's matches are completely sold out, including the opening match against Canada on Sunday which will have a capacity crowd of 70,000 in Berlin."

U.S. women in unfamiliar role as World Cup begins

Germany and the United States are traditionally the two powerhouses in women's soccer, having won four of the five tournaments that have been played between them.

We always try and think one step ahead ... We want this tournament to be a role model for all future World Cup competitions
--Heike Ullrich, German FA

However, despite the dominance of these countries on the international stage, there is a large difference in their respective domestic leagues.

Women's soccer thrives in the U.S. Not only do they possess the richest league in the world, in terms of player wages, but they also have a fine tradition in bringing young players through the college system.

Despite only six teams making up Women's Professional Soccer (WPS), it remains the only fully-paid female competition in the world.

And it is backed up by a solid pyramid system, with the second-tier Women's Premier Soccer League consisting of 65 teams spread over 10 divisions.

Unlike Germany, where the 12-team women's Bundesliga includes famous names like Bayern Munich, Hamburg and Bayer Leverkusen, in the United States the teams have no affiliation with their male counterparts from Major League Soccer.

But, since it was formed two years ago, WPS has attracted some of the world's stellar names, lured by the wages on offer and the attraction of playing in a country where women's soccer has as much appeal as the men's game.

"More women and girls play soccer than any other sport in the United States, but things really took off after we won the World Cup on home soil in 1999," said Christa Mann, PR manager for Atlanta Beat -- one of the six teams that compete in WPS.

"That victory encouraged more young girls to go into the college system to play and resulted in the formation of the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) in 2001."

Money problems forced the WUSA to fold in 2003 but, six years later, WPS was formed, and is so far proving to be a resounding success.

"We have brought over some of the major superstars of the women's game to play in our league and that is having a positive effect on the overall standard," Mann said.

"At our club, we have average gates of 4,000 and have a large fan base including youth soccer clubs from the local area.

"The league is looking to expand from its current six teams. The goal is to keep on attracting the world's best players, which will hopefully encourage even more homegrown players, resulting in the creation of more teams."

We have brought over some of the major superstars of the women's game to play in our league and that is having a positive effect on the overall standard
--Christa Mann - Atlanta Beat

German football expert Rafael Honigstein believes his nation will get behind the team during the World Cup, but doubts if it will raise the profile of women's football to the level it currently enjoys across the Atlantic.

"This tournament has been marketed very well and is riding on the back of the euphoria and good feeling that surrounded Germany following the men's World Cup here in 2006," Honigstein told CNN.

"It will have good TV exposure and has aroused some interest, but that interest is not extended to the club scene. The recent women's FA Cup final, won by Bayern Munich, attracted a gate of just 2,000 fans and when Turbine Potsdam reached the final of the Champions League this year, it barely registered with the German public."

Honigstein said that some of the big men's Bundesliga clubs fund their women's teams, partly "as a politically correct thing to do" and also to attract more women supporters by selling merchandising.

"There is definitely a strong foundation to women's soccer in Germany, which translates to the national team, but I don't think the World Cup will somehow change the profile of the game, even if Germany wins the tournament," he said.

Although other countries in Europe, notably Norway and England, have league set-ups where some players are professional, Germany leads in the way in terms of the European game.

"We always try and think one step ahead," Ullrich said. "For example when FIFA first announced there would be an under-17 women's World Cup in 2008, we immediately set up an under-15 team to play friendly matches and gain experience for when they graduated to the under-17 team.

"It's that level of pre-thinking and structure, backed by the budgets and scouting networks, that keeps our infrastructure solid and enables the national team to always be competitive."

With two World Cups already in the bag, Germany have proved they are the team to beat going into the tournament.

But should the United States retain the crown they last won in 1999, the strength of their own domestic league could well prove to be the reason why.