Last year, upon his election as president of FIFA, soccer's world governing body, Joseph "Sepp" Blatter declared: "The future of football is feminine."
With just one day before the start of the 1999 Women's World Cup, the future has arrived.
Women's soccer, which was nothing more than a recreational sport 10 years ago, will be on display for all the world to see during the next three weeks as national teams from 16 countries compete for the championship at eight U.S. sites, including Jack Kent Cooke Stadium.
Organizers are proclaiming the Women's World Cup the "largest women's-only sporting event in history."
The tournament's opening games are Saturday at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., and Spartan Stadium in San Jose. The final is July 10 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
The tournament will be televised in more than 70 countries and every game can be seen live or on same-day tape delay in the United States.
This is the third Women's World Cup, but the first on such a large scale. The first tournament, in 1991 and won by the United States, was largely ignored outside the host country, China; the second, four years later and won by Norway, didn't draw many spectators in Sweden.
Initial plans for the 1999 tournament were to play at several small- and medium-sized stadiums in the eastern United States. But after witnessing giant crowds for women's soccer at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics (76,489 attended the final; 64,196 attended the semifinals, both at the University of Georgia's Sanford Stadium), FIFA decided to go nationwide and attempt to fill bigger stadiums. In addition, FIFA officials knew that when the men's World Cup was held in the United States in 1994, more 3.5 million fans attended the games -- a record by more than 1 million.
Ticket sales for this event are approaching a half-million for the 17 game dates, and Saturday's official opener, a doubleheader with the United States against Denmark, and Brazil against Mexico, could draw a sellout of more than 75,000 at Giants Stadium.
The enthusiasm hasn't been as great in the Washington area, with games at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium among the lowest in tickets sold. However, local officials say they are looking forward to a big crowd July 1 when the United States would play its quarterfinal. These soccer games are the first athletic events other than football to be held at the two-year-old stadium.
All first-round and quarterfinal games in the tournament are parts of doubleheaders. The semifinals will be held separately in Palo Alto, Calif., and Foxboro, Mass., and the third-place game and final will be played as a doubleheader at the Rose Bowl.
Women's soccer doesn't have nearly the following of the men's game, which has staged a world championship since 1930 and, with the Summer Olympics, is the world's most popular sporting event. But in the United States, it seems to have struck a nerve with girls who play the sport and with fans of women's sports, which were in the spotlight at the 1996 Olympics, when American teams won gold medals in basketball, softball and soccer.
In a study released last month, the Soccer Industry Council of America reported that 7.5 million females are among the 18 million who play soccer in this country -- a 34 percent increase since 1991. About 6.2 million are females under age 18.
In addition to Saturday's opener, the U.S. team will play in front of large crowds for its other first-round games, against Nigeria in Chicago and North Korea in Foxboro.
Besides the United States and Norway, the top teams are expected to be China, Germany and Brazil. Teams have been arriving the past few weeks and training in locations all over the country. Next week, prior to the first games at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, teams will practice at George Mason University and Annandale High School.
"The tournament has already been a success in terms of ticket sales, media interest . . . and sponsorship support," said Marla Messing, president of the Women's World Cup Organizing Committee. "Now it's time to let the players take over. This tournament has reached a level that we could only dream about."
CAPTION: Shannon MacMillan and U.S. are favorites to win their second World Cup, but defending champ Norway, China, Brazil will challenge.