For FIFA and New Zealand alike, the inaugural FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup represented a journey into the unknown.
This was not one of those tournaments guaranteed to succeed, and yet somehow it managed to not only enhance the reputation of its supposedly rugby-obsessed Host Nation, but strengthen women's football and enrich the beautiful game as a whole. The scoffs of the cynics have certainly long since been silenced, replaced by a chorus of acclaim for a competition that, in every single aspect, exceeded even the most optimistic expectations.
"This tournament was a gamble," admitted Tatjana Haenni, FIFA's Head of Women's Competitions. "When FIFA first introduced it, there were a lot of critical voices saying it was too early and questioning whether girls this young would be able to play at a level worthy of a World Cup. If things had not gone well, perhaps the tournament's future would not have been good. But of course it has been a huge success on every level, and the next hosts are going to have a huge challenge living up to the standard that has been set."
Trinidad and Tobago are the nation to which that particular gauntlet has been passed, and they will know how tough it will be to live up to a tournament that, in the words of USA coach Kazbek Tambi, "really couldn't have been better". That these sentiments were uttered after the Americans' final defeat by Korea DPR on Sunday says everything for the impression that New Zealand 2008 left on participants and spectators alike, with the crowd of 16,162 that turned out to watch the North Koreans' triumph providing the ultimate tribute to the competition's appeal.
Chris Simpson, the Local Organising Committee's CEO, revealed afterwards that FIFA had challenged the Kiwis to surpass Russia's total turnout of 52,000 for the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup of 2006, while the LOC privately set themselves the goal of breaking through the 100,000 barrier. Ultimately, both targets were made to look modest in the extreme by a final figure of 212,504.
All this speaks volumes for the LOC's marketing efforts and the readiness of the Kiwi public to embrace the event, of course, but it is also a reflection on the fare served up by a talented new generation of female stars. It was the players, certainly, who made good on FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter's pre-tournament promise that New Zealand would be treated to "something very special", with dramatic matches, spectacular goals and dazzling skills all in plentiful supply.
If things had not gone well, perhaps the tournament's future would not have been good. But of course it has been a huge success on every level, and the next hosts are going to have a huge challenge living up to the standard that has been set.
Some confederations performed better than others, of course. The South and Central American quartet toiled, failing to win a single match, while it was Asia's representatives who proved the competition's most notable success story.
Japan quickly emerged as the fans' favourites, playing an eye-catching brand of slick, scintillating football personified in Mana Iwabuchi, their outstanding playmaker. The 15-year-old was at the head of a group of No10s who became the stars of the tournament, with the adidas Golden Ball winner ably supported by the likes of Germany's Dzsenifer Marozsan, USA's Kristie Mewis and Jon Myong Hwa of Korea DPR.
While Iwabuchi and Japan burned brightly but ultimately left their promise unfulfilled, Korea DPR produced a very different kind of campaign by replicating the approach that had taken them to U-20 glory at Russia 2006. Quietly going about their business, improving with every game, Ri Ui Ham's side maintained their country's amazing unbeaten record in FIFA women's youth events with a gameplan based on sound technique and a solid structure.
The final proved to be a microcosm of the entire tournament, with the North Koreans starting slowly before going on to outplay a formidable USA side who, even in defeat, emerged with huge credit. The Americans might not have taken the trophy, but they still showed their considerable class, forming a guard of honour for their Korean conquerors before unfurling a banner emblazoned with the message 'Thank you, New Zealand'.
In doing so, the US players not only embodied the spirit of this terrific tournament; they expressed the sentiments of all those fortunate enough to have been a part of it.
Participants *Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Ghana, Japan, Korea DPR, Korea Republic, New Zealand, Nigeria, Paraguay, USA. * Final standings
1. Korea DPR
Fair Play award: Germany
Total goals: 113
6: Marozsan (GER)
5: DiMartino (USA)
4: Jon (PRK), Verloo (USA), Kira (JPN), Kishikawa (JPN)
Total attendance: 212,504