- The Washington Times - Friday, October 27, 2006

SEOUL — FIFA president Sepp Blatter has often said “the future of soccer is feminine.”

While some might consider Blatter’s prediction a little too optimistic, women’s soccer continues to grow. More than 130 nations now boast national teams, and even England, the birthplace of the men’s game but never too friendly to women’s soccer, has seen it’s women’s team qualify for next year’s Women’s World Cup in China.

Furthering the advance of the women’s game is the arrival of the Peace Queen Cup, an eight-team tournament that kicks off today in Seoul, South Korea. The star attraction of the event is two-time Olympic and World Cup champion United States women’s national team.

Outside of the women’s World Cup and the women’s European Championship, the Peace Queen Cup is the biggest women’s soccer event in the world featuring five top-10 ranked teams, with the winners receiving $200,000 in prize money.

The tournament format involves two groups of four national teams, with the group winners advancing to the championship game after round-robin play. The No. 2 ranked U.S. team opens Group B against recent 2007 World Cup qualifier Denmark tomorrow in the southern city of Kimhae. The Americans then face Australia, another World Cup qualifier on Tuesday in Cheonan, outside of Seoul, before finishing group play against the Netherlands on Thursday in Suwon, just south of the capital.

The Americans are favorites to reach the championship match on Nov. 4 in Seoul but will be tested by Denmark, which is ranked ninth in the world, and Australia, which earned two ties against the U.S. team in its last meetings.

Group A kicks off today at the Seoul World Cup Stadium, with hosts South Korea taking on Olympic silver medal holders Brazil, followed by Italy against Canada. The fourth-ranked Brazilians are the favorites to meet the Americans in the final on Nov. 4 in Seoul, while Italy and Canada, tied for No. 10 in the rankings, are outside contenders. The 22nd-ranked Koreans playing before the home fans have something to prove after to failing to qualify for next year’s World Cup.

For the U.S. team the Peace Cup is a final tune-up for the Gold Cup in Carson, Calif., where the United States will compete next month for a berth at the World Cup in China in a game probably against Mexico.

“The most important thing about this event is playing high-quality games to help us prepare for World Cup qualification,” U.S. coach Greg Ryan said. “We want to win this, but winning is less a priority than making sure our players come out of this healthy, confident and playing well together.”

Unbeaten this year, the U.S. team (13-0-3) is led by Kristine Lilly and former Washington Freedom ace Abby Wambach in their first visit South Korea.

The Peace Queen Cup, which previously featured men’s teams in 2003 and 2005, is sponsored by the SunMoon Football Peace Soccer Foundation, a sister company of The Washington Times. Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven won the 2003 title and English Premier League Club Tottenham Hotspur won the event last year.

“The tremendous success of the men’s Peace Cup established the need for the creation of the Peace Queen Cup,” said Chung Hwan Kwak, the chairman of the event and president of the K-League, Korea’s professional soccer league.

The talented North Korea team, ranked 7th in the world, was invited to play in the event but pulled out after the country tested a nuclear device on Oct. 9.

In an unusual gesture, North Korea sent a formal letter to the organizers expressing regret for not attending and asking for understanding. According to South Korea’s news agency Yonhap, it is rare for North Korea to decline an invitation in such a formal written notice.

The absence of North Korea was a blow to the event. The North Korean under-20 team stunned the world winning the FIFA U-20 World Women’s World Championship in Russia last month beating China 5-0. The North Korean team was replaced by the Netherlands. Nigeria was also scheduled to participate, but was later replaced by Canada.

Notes — The U.S. team visited the DMZ, the fortified border between North and South Korea, on Thursday in a tour organized by the USO. Yesterday, the team trained at the Olympic Stadium in Seoul.

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