As per Bevan's request, I've decided to write about the FIFA u17 final since I went along to the match. I must admit that my reason for going along to the game had very little to do with my love of the beautiful game or even supporting women's sport, North Korea were playing in the final against their mortal enemy the United States. I accept that for normal people a North Korean team isn't exactly going to be a major drawcard to a sporting event. But after a few years in the South, I became obsessed with the country and even visited it earlier this year so figured I might as well put some of my tourist souvenirs to good use and support my favourite communist dictatorship's national team. The Suit, who is obsessed with sport and didn't have much to do on a Sunday arvo, was happy to tag along and support the Norks since there was no way in hell he was going to support the Americans. So off to the soccer we went.
With the dominance of men's rugby and league in the sports media in New Zealand, soccer, let alone girls' soccer, was never going to sell out the 25,000 seat North Harbour stadium. Nevertheless there was still a fairly respectable crowd of 17,000. Lots of local Dads out with their kids, young Americans on student exchange and the sizable South Korean community on the North Shore turned out with their drums and the cheers for their Northern cousins. Unfortunately there was a group of British Soccer hooligans who had stayed on after their team got thrashed by the Germans in the battle for 3rd place yelling out to the Americans that they had great tits, how much they loved player number 6, demanding players' phone numbers and yelling 'fuck you' in Korean to the Korean players. A charming sexism in sport in action. But for the most part the crowd was highly supportive of the players out on the field.
Soccer has an interesting place in New Zealand sport. It is extremely popular, especially for young people who make it the most played sport for kids under 16. However many kids either move onto the oval ball games or give it up by the time they hit high school. Perhaps the sport's low profile is because of the attitude that it is a kids' game and real men play rugby or at least watch it. At junior level, one in three players is female and the sports governing body, FIFA, has put considerable effort into developing the game after the president declared the future of football is feminine. That effort has paid off. Women's participation in the game has more than doubled since 2000 and there are now an estimated 26 million females playing soccer worldwide.
But that day I was watching the two giants of u17 soccer, the United States and North Korea, fighting it out for the title. The Americans have a strong women's soccer scene due in part to the Title IX legislation of 1972 which mandated that any school receiving state funding had to ensure that equality of funding and opportunities to participate in extra-curricular activities. For it's part the North Korean state devotes a considerable amount of the country's resources developing educational and after-school facilities for children and young teenagers. In the absence of cellphones and the internet, North Korean children devote many hours to practicing their chosen hobby whether it be sport or cultural. The women who played in Auckland were beneficiaries of that programme.
Things looked ominous for the Norks after a throw in by one of the Americans bounced off their goalkeepers hands into the goal two minutes into the game. The Suit informed that had the goalkeeper not touched the ball, the goal would not have stood. The North Koreans were gutted and after many near misses, a substitute scored a goal half way through the second period and then it was all on. The drums of the Korean supporters started to be louder, matched in intensity by the 'USA! USA! USA' chants of the American team. The game went into extra time with plenty of shots at goal from both sides but still no success. Finally eight minutes before penalty shoot out, another North Korean substitute scored the winning goal. At full time the North Korean substitutes charged onto the field to join the rest of their ecstatic team in a group embrace and a victory lap of the field. The Americans were gracious in defeat forming a guard of honour for the victorious Koreans.
From an uninformed spectator's point of view, the final was a brillant game. The players played tough and also with the kind of raw spirit that is missing from the professional rugby games. The Suit told me that the soccer itself was far better than he had expected and showed two contrasting styles of play. The Americans were clearly individually brillant players but the North Koreans were a far more cohesive team who passed to each other and changed direction far more than their American counterparts.
New Zealand's successful hosting of this tournament might see New Zealand make a bid for the 2015 Women's World cup. Hopefully these high-profile events will encourage more girls and for that matter boys to take up the game.