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Women's World Cup Soccer Kicks Off Saturday In Canada


In less than 24 hours, the biggest women's sporting event in the world kicks off. And yes, that pun was intended because I'm talking about the 2015 Women's World Cup. Hundreds of millions of people are expected to tune in to the opening game between host country Canada and China. NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji is in Canada and gives us the rundown.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Twenty-three women's teams from across the world have descended on Canada, eight more than last tournament. The U.S. is ranked second among the lot, and they've got the player who has scored the most international goals in the entire world, male or female - forward Abby Wambach. She just celebrated her 35th birthday this week.

ABBY WAMBACH: Number one, I'm four years older, so of course, I'm four years wiser. For me, it's being smarter than I was four years ago so that I can be in the final playing for my country come July.

MERAJI: Wambach has two gold medals but no World Cup championship title, and she wants it bad. But it's not going to be easy. The U.S. is playing in the group round with some decent teams, one of which is Sweden, whose coach, Pia Sundhage, used to coach the U.S. women. So there might be some emotional baggage on the field that day. And speaking of the field, it's not grass. It's artificial turf, the first time the World Cup has ever been played on turf, and ouch, it hurts.

PATTY LA BELLA: It feels like one giant rug burn.

MERAJI: Patty La Bella hosts the Women's World Football Show, a podcast about women's soccer, and is talking about U.S. defender Lori Chalupny after a game on turf against super physical France.

LA BELLA: Like from her ankles to her - all over her elbows, her arms - and I'm like, holy cow. They're going to do this for how many games?

MERAJI: Last year, more than 60 players signed on to a gender discrimination lawsuit against FIFA saying FIFA would never allow men to play on turf but ended up dropping it because it wasn't going to get sorted in time for the Cup. Star midfielder for the U.S. Carli Lloyd said they made their point loud and clear, and now they've got bigger things to worry than the absence of grass.

CARLI LLOYD: We've been training on turf a lot, and I think we'll adapt just fine to it.

MERAJI: Just like the women to put their head down and play through the pain. That's the one thing about this international tournament - not as much rolling around on the grass - I mean, turf - crying foul after being knocked down by a feather or nothing at all. Speaking of the men, the promos on Fox Sports designed to pump everyone up for the Women's World Cup starts with the U.S. men in Brazil, which was last year.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's De Bruyne and Belgium scores. The American's World Cup dream is over.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It didn't end when the final whistle sounded.

MERAJI: Jennifer Doyle, who writes about gender and sports for her blog The Sports Spectacle, has been following the women's team closely for almost a decade. She says the new ads are way better than the ones from years ago with the tagline, the greatest team you've never heard of. But they still put the men first, setting it up like the U.S. women will avenge the men's defeat.

JENNIFER DOYLE: As if the U.S. women were not in the final of the last Women's World Cup and lost to Japan. They have their own score to settle.

MERAJI: Yup. Japan won four years ago. They, of course, want a repeat. The U.S. is ranked second to Germany, which has also won the World Cup twice. France is a powerhouse team. Brazil has a five-time FIFA Footballer of the Year winner who just goes by Marta. She's so good she doesn't need a last name. Soccer fan and semipro player Mary Brazie says this World Cup is going to be exciting, so figure out how to tune in.

MARY BRAZIE: You track it down. And you go to a bar, and you watch it. Like, everyone should be watching the women. Like, everyone should be doing it. Like, they're - they play so well. They play so skilled. They work so hard to do it. There's no reason we shouldn't support them.

MERAJI: At least 50,000 fans are expected to attend tomorrow's opening game between Canada and China. That will set a record, the largest crowd ever to cheer on a national team here, men or women. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News, Edmonton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.
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