VANCOUVER, British Columbia — For a few moments over the past month, the Women’s World Cup seemed to push aside the FIFA scandal that is simmering a half planet away.
Those moments came on the pitch: From upstart Cameroon crashing the party in the knockout stage, to England’s fantastic run, to host Canada’s tournament-opening victory on star Christine Sinclair’s stoppage-time penalty kick.
And of course, Carli Lloyd’s hat trick in a 5-2 victory for the United States in the final against Japan.
Despite the controversy over the artificial turf and questions about who would present the championship trophy, the Women’s World Cup was a resounding success, setting records for attendance and TV ratings. The corruption case enveloping the sport’s world governing body at least temporarily took a backseat to the Beautiful Game.
In many ways, FIFA can thank the Americans.
The second-ranked U.S. women started out the monthlong tournament across Canada as one of the favorites, but there were questions along the way about a sputtering offense and U.S. coach Jill Ellis’ tactics.
Steadily the United States, which didn’t drop a match, gained momentum. Boosted by stellar defense, Ellis made a key shift late in the tournament, moving Lloyd up top as an attacking midfielder and putting 22-year-old Morgan Brian into a defensive midfield’s role.
After toppling top-ranked Germany — the team that had ended a six-year run by the Americans atop the rankings — in the semifinals, the United States dominated Japan from the start. Lloyd’s three goals came in the first 16 minutes, including an audacious shot from near midfield.
U.S. fans — including Vice President Joe Biden — streamed across the border for the match, filling Vancouver’s BC Place with more than 53,000 fans.
It was the U.S. team’s third World Cup title, more than any other nation. And it vindicated the USSF for its decision in April 2014 to fire coach Tom Sermanni — who had replaced Pia Sundhage the previous year — and replace him with Ellis, the British-born American who had been an assistant.
“We’ll probably let her continue tomorrow,” U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati said with a smile. “She did her job, right? For any coach on this team the job description is to win the World Cup and the Olympics. She did a great job. We went through this competition unbeaten. We had a lot of people doubting it along the way and a lot of people second guessing. … I’m extremely pleased for Jill. She worked hard, she believed it what she was doing, and it paid off.”
For the Americans, it’s on to a victory tour and Olympic qualifying this fall.
For FIFA, it’s back to reality. The organization is the target of a U.S. Justice Department corruption investigation. The inquiry prompted longtime President Sepp Blatter to announce his intention to resign just four days after being re-elected to a fifth term.
While Blatter has not been charged, American law enforcement authorities have confirmed he is part of the investigation. He did not travel to Canada. Instead, FIFA Senior Vice President Issa Hayatou of Cameroon, the head of African soccer’s governing body, handed the trophy to U.S. veterans Abby Wambach and Christie Rampone.
When the stadium announcer asked the crowd to welcome the FIFA officials, the crowd booed.
FIFA faced criticism over the course of the tournament, particularly over the artificial turf.
Wambach last year led a group of players who filed a legal claim in Canada, saying that the artificial turf amounted to gender discrimination because the men’s event would never be staged on fake grass.
It’s already been established that the next World Cup, held four years from now in France, will be held on the real thing.
“I still think that it was not ideal. We all believe that,” U.S. forward Sydney Leroux said. “For us to fight that, hopefully for the future it never happens again, and we have that equality.”
Critics say the artificial turf was emblematic of FIFA’s sexism. There were other signs during the tournament: competing teams staying in the same hotels and a prize money pool one-third of what their male counterparts had a year ago.
But Ellis believes that progress is being made.
“I think people can’t help, FIFA included, but to notice how popular this sport is. And to make sure, it’s like anything, there is always an evolution. There is always a process to go through before equal footing is gained,” Ellis said.
That evolution will continue as the next big stage for women’s soccer is just a year away at the Rio Olympics.
Brazil and star Marta, bounced from the round of 16 by Australia, are the hosts.
Because UEFA uses the World Cup as qualifying for the Olympics, Germany and France have also secured a spot. England does not get a pass because the IOC recognizes Great Britain collectively.
CONCACAF doesn’t give free passes, so the U.S. will play in a qualifying tournament. If the United States qualifies as expected, the roster will be 18, after 23 players went to Canada.
“Some serious tough decisions,” Ellis said Monday, already looking ahead. “I’m still looking for other players. That’s got to continue to be part of my process to find the best out there.”