PARIS — It’s the biggest game in women’s soccer.
Friday night’s World Cup quarterfinal between the top-ranked U.S. women and host France has been sold out for weeks. Tickets on the resale market ranged from $182 — that’s for a seat in the rafters — to $2,160 on Thursday. Coverage of France’s women’s team has pushed the men’s team – and Neymar – to the inside pages of the papers. A soccer store near Parc des Princes that two weeks ago didn’t have anything World Cup-related on display now has two window fronts filled with merchandise for the game, including T-shirts with “Allez Les Bleues!” emblazoned on the front, the extra e in bold red.
And if previous games at this World Cup are any indication, half of France will likely be watching the game while ratings in the United States could threaten the record set for the 2015 World Cup final, when the Americans walloped Japan on the way to their third title.
“I hope it’s huge and crazy,” Megan Rapinoe said earlier this week, her eyes lit up and a grin on her face. “That’s what it should be. This is the best game, this is what everybody wanted. I think we want it. It seems like they’re up for it. …
“These are the biggest games you dream about as a kid.”
The hype for this game is not meant to take anything away from the final of the 1999 World Cup. Or the final four years ago, both of which were huge ratings draws in the United States and inspired little girls from coast to coast.
But Friday’s quarterfinal between the world’s top-ranked team and the World Cup host carries a significance that reaches well beyond our country.
It felt before the tournament began that this World Cup would be a tipping point, a preview of the game’s potential if the rest of the world devoted even a fraction of the resources and interest to women’s soccer that it does to its men’s teams. It’s been so much more than that, though.
This World Cup has shown that it’s no longer “if” or “when” the rest of the world catches onto the women’s game. It’s happening now, and we’ve watched the enthusiasm grow every day.
While ticket sales have been disappointing, to put it mildly, that was the result of FIFA and the local organizers’ ineptitude or indifference, who claimed in multiple instances that games were sold out or close to it when neither was the case.
But when given the chance, fans have shown up. The Dutch have turned out in droves, painting the streets orange in every city where the Netherlands has played. Reims and Le Havre might as well have been U.S. territories on the days the Americans played.
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Fans have tuned in, too, with record ratings in almost every country. In Brazil, a soccer-mad country where the game has traditionally been met with indifference, more than 35 million people tuned in to watch Marta & Co. in their round-of-16 loss to France.
That’s right, 35 million.
“This is a magnificent showcase piece for our sport,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. “I’ve said it’s the most popular sport for women, and I think this game makes it bigger. The attention, the fanfare around it and behind it just draws more attention to it. If we can garner more support, more sponsors, more fans, more little girls willing to go out and kick a soccer ball from watching this tomorrow night, that’s fantastic. That’s a great fallout.”
The magnitude of this game goes well beyond simply the U.S. playing the host. Dating to July 2017, a span of 50 matches, the Americans have lost one game.
To France, in January.
It wasn’t a close game, either, a 3-1 win by Les Bleues that would have been a shutout if not for Mallory Pugh’s goal in the final seconds.
In their last three games against France, the Americans are 0-1-2. Sure, all of those games were exhibitions, as France coach Corinne Diacre was quick to point out Thursday. But no other team has had the U.S. women’s number like that recently, and that cannot be underestimated.
“When you’re able to do something once, then you should be able to pull it off again,” France captain Amandine Henry said. “And I hope that will be the case tomorrow night.”
As for France, it is trying to become the first country to hold the men’s and women’s World Cup titles at the same time. It is also trying to shed its label as underachievers, having never advanced beyond the semifinals at a major international tournament and losing in the quarterfinals at the 2015 World Cup, 2016 Olympics and 2017 European championships.
June 24: United States forward Megan Rapinoe celebrates after scoring a penalty kick goal during the first half against Spain. (Photo: Michael Chow, USA TODAY Sports)
After a strong opener, France has looked vulnerable, and Diacre questioned the state of her team after its win over Brazil. But she downplayed the idea Thursday that they’re the ones feeling the pressure.
“Look, when you play against the United States, I have a lot less talk to do in my team talk. In regards to motivation, I don’t have to do any work at all,” Diacre said. "The girls are firing.”
The Americans have failed to reach the semifinals at only one major tournament, losing to Sweden in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Olympics. A loss to France would be worse, given how strong the U.S. women looked in scoring a record 18 goals during the group stage, and the confidence the players have exuded.
They were criticized by some for running up the score and others for celebrating their late goals too much in their 13-0 win over Thailand. They’ve been asked by foreign reporters about their “arrogance.”
But when Ellis was asked if the Americans are under pressure, she smiled.
“This is a big game and the players know that,” she said. “But … they are wired for this, they’re built for this. You don’t come into the U.S. program and hide in the shadows. You come in and you’re in the spotlight right away.
“I think some teams will visit pressure, but I think we live there a lot,” Ellis added. “And I think that’s part of the pride in the history of this program, that’s brought us to this point.”
To France, and the biggest game the sport has ever seen.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
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