Vancouver: The biggest Women's World Cup in history kicks off on Saturday amid a backdrop of damaging FIFA corruption allegations that are threatening to overshadow the four-week tournament in Canada.
The growing popularity of the sport has seen its expansion to 24 teams from 16, and nearly one million tickets have been sold for games in host cities -- Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and Moncton.
But Canada's soccer chief Victor Montagliani was faced with a barrage of questions about the FIFA controversy rather than the tournament during the opening press conference in Vancouver on the eve of the event. Montagliani said he hopes the tournament, which begins with Canada playing China in Edmonton, can give a lift to the sport during arguably the darkest period in its history.
"I actually think it's a positive thing that the first tournament after whatever happened last week is the Women's World Cup," said Montagliani of the FIFA controversy and shock resignation of president Sepp Blatter. Montagliani was also quizzed about a 2014 interview in which he described North and Central American and Caribbean Confederation (CONCACAF) president Jeffrey Webb as an inspiration. Canada are also a CONCACAF member.
Webb, a FIFA vice-president, was among seven people arrested in raids on a Zurich hotel and subsequently suspended from all football-related activity as FIFA grapples with a corruption crisis that has rocked the sport's governing body. Montagliani said he knew Webb through his anti-racism campaign and FIFA work.
"It would be very hard to say you wouldn't respect somebody of that nature," said Montagliani. "Having said that, if the allegations (from) last week are true, then obviously that would change a lot of people's opinion. I hope it's not because obviously we know there's no room in the game for those kinds of things."
During the press grilling Montagliani was also asked whether he had paid a bribe to FIFA so Canada could host the women's tournament, to which he replied: "Absolutely not," adding that the Canadian bid was the last viable one at the time of the selection. - Artificial turf - The tournament which opens with a Group A double-header in Edmonton with Canada versus China followed by New Zealand against the Netherlands, will be the first played on artificial turf rather than grass.
The decision had resulted in a gender discrimination lawsuit by a group of top women's football players which was subsequently withdrawn. New artificial turf was installed on Wednesday at BC Place in Vancouver, which hosts nine games, including the final, and was undergoing final certifications to meet FIFA's 2-Star standard.
Being forced to play the event on the surface, which has drawn complaints over injury worries and true rolls and bounces of the ball, irked the women given the men's World Cup is played on natural grass. "It's like concrete.
The risk of injury is enormous," complained Germany goalkeeper Nadine Angerer, a former world player of the year, describing the decision to play the final on the surface as "a joke". Champions Japan open their title defence on Monday against Switzerland in Vancouver, with two-time winners the United States playing Australia in Winnipeg on the same day and Germany opening against the Ivory Coast in Ottawa on Sunday. Meanwhile a FIFA spokeswoman would not confirm whether Blatter would attend the final on July 5 in Vancouver as planned.