Now the FIFA Women's World Cup USA 2003 has finished, women's football fans are now turning their attention to the next global showpiece in 2007. And after one of the most thrilling women's tournaments in history, once-and-future hosts China PR will be hoping to repeat the success of this year's footballing festival.
An unexpected challenge
It seems long ago, but in fact, it was just on 17 July, 2003, at the group draw in the Home Depot Center, that China's coach Ma Liangxing symbolically handed over the FIFA Women's World Cup trophy to April Heinrichs, coach of new hosts the United States. The 2003 finals would go ahead - far away on a different continent than originally planned.
Through April and May concerns over the SARS outbreak in China had the tournament in flux, and on 26 May, in order to the keep the event on schedule, FIFA regrettably informed the world that the new hosts would be the United States. Under tremendous pressure the to get the event ready, everything came off without a hitch, and football fans everywhere turned their eyes to the USA on 20 September.
What they saw was a host of familiar faces - Sun Wen, Mia Hamm, Bettina Wiegmann, Hege Riise and others were back - and some new ones, most notably finals debutantes France, Korea Republic and Argentina.
Breaking the mould
Echoing the thoughts of women's football experts the world over, China coach Ma Liangxing said at the group draw: "The gap between teams is narrowing all the time as traditionally weaker teams catch up with the stronger teams. This World Cup should see plenty of surprises."
Unfortunately for Ma, his own side were one of those to be caught off guard, as the slick and talented Chinese were upset by Canada in the quarter-final. The flourishing North Americans put an 11-match losing streak against China behind them to record a shock 1-0 win. Norway were another of the established elite to be on the wrong end of an unwelcome surprise. The reigning Olympic Champions were comprehensively beaten 4-1 by a young and engaging Brazilian side before being eliminated by the hosts in the quarter-final.
More surprising still was Germany's 3-0 victory over the favourites, the United States, in the semi-final. That game spelled the end for the seemingly all-conquering Americans, and handed Germany a place in the Final with Sweden. Sweden, for their part, rebounded from an opening loss to the U.S. and sent Brazil and then Canada packing 2-1 victories.
And, for the second time, after Sweden 1995, the FIFA Women's World Cup had an all-European final.
The rise of Europe
The final match, which can tend to be a tense and dour affair, was celebration of all that is right about football, women's or otherwise. The match was fast, thrilling, skilful and dramatic. It was a genuine feast of attacking football and physical determination. In the end, a golden goal gave the reigning European Champions, Germany, their first World Championship.
Before that dramatic victory, four of the five European teams made it out of their groups and into the quarter-finals. Although Russia and Norway were defeated in their second round matches, and France bravely went out of a tough group, they still outperformed Asian champions Korea DPR and African title-holders Nigeria, who were unable to make it out of their respective groups.
Europe's success this year was not merely a coincidence either. All five sides from the old continent showed vast improvements from the last FIFA Women's World Cup in terms of skill and technique, and their experience in top-class matches was obvious.
Older players like 31-year-old Hamm and 30-year-old Sun Wen remained in the spotlight this year, but younger players also made their mark. The USA's 23-year-old Abby Wambach largely stole the show for the Americans with her decisive and practical technique. Her heading ability and tireless ball pilfering made her the most feared striker on the U.S. team.
Another rising star was 16-year-old Canadian Kara Lang, who impressed with her outstanding skill, alertness and stamina. Brazil's 17-year-old Marta also left a lasting impression. Her excellent ball control and positioning earned her the following praise from Ma Liangxing: "The way she plays points the way forward for football."
At 24-years-old, Germany's Kerstin Garefrekes also made her mark, finding the net four times, while Sweden's 20-year-old Josefine Oeqvist scored the spectacular winning goal against Canada in the final match. Korea DPR's 23-year-old Jin Pyol-Hui also showed herself a scorer of the future, and Russia's Elena Danilova, the youngest player at this year's FIFA Women's World Cup, scored an impressive solo effort against Germany in the quarter-final.
The "seven miracles," with an average age of 19, will doubtless take centre stage at the next FIFA Women's World Cup.
So long USA 2003, see you at China PR 2007.