Despite expanded field, Women's World Cup remains an exclusive club

For the time being, the upper reaches of women's soccer remain a private club

Now that the preliminaries are over, it's time for the women's World Cup to really get started. Because for all the excitement about the expanded field and the eight teams that were making their tournament debuts here, when the round of 16 begins Saturday the World Cup will look pretty much the way it has always looked.

Only three of the debutants — Cameroon, Switzerland and the Netherlands — made it out of the group stage. Nine of the other teams that advanced are playing in a World Cup for at least the sixth time.

Among them are the U.S., Germany, Norway and Japan, the only countries to have ever won a title, as well as every team that has ever played in a World Cup semifinal.

So all that talk of parity in the women's game may have been a bit premature. For the time being, the upper reaches of women's soccer remain a private club, its doors closed to all but a select few.

Yet despite the overwhelming sense of deja vu, consider this World Cup a knock on those doors nonetheless.

Cameroon, one of the new teams, came into the tournament ranked 53rd in the world — ahead of only Ivory Coast — yet won as many games in group play as both Germany and the U.S. And by finishing second in its group, it became just the second African country to reach the elimination stages of a women's World Cup.

South Korea won its first World Cup game ever to join China and defending champion Japan in the round of 16, marking the first time Asia has had three teams advance.

"It's any country's opportunity. And that's why everybody friggin' loves this game," said U.S. Coach Jill Ellis. "Small countries, big countries, it really is a game that the world can compete [in]."

But competing is one thing and winning is another. Taking that next step will require a commitment — financial and otherwise — from the ruling soccer federations back home. And some women's teams come begging for that money while still fighting pitched battles against outdated cultural perceptions that say a woman's place is not on the soccer field.

"There's been lots of talk of other countries overcoming things ... just not having gear and not having enough funding," said U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd. "For them to overcome them, it's pretty amazing. If only we could up the funding a little bit more with some of the other countries, it would really go a long way with women's soccer."

Some have already made inroads. In Spain, for example, where women's soccer had not been embraced previously, the team was front-page news despite going winless and finishing last in its group in its World Cup debut.

But now the elimination round begins and talk of growing the game gives way to talk of crushing your opponent.

The most compelling second-round game could be the first, with Germany meeting Sweden on Saturday afternoon. It's the only matchup of top-five teams — Germany is No. 1 in the latest FIFA rankings and Sweden is No. 5 — and both coaches have squared off before in a World Cup. In 1995, when Sweden's Pia Sundhage and Germany's Silvia Neid were still playing, Sundhage scored the tying goal in a 3-2 win over Neid and Germany.

So far in this World Cup, Neid's team has won twice and compiled the best goal differential in the tournament at +14 while Sundhage's Sweden is winless, having played to three draws.

The only other matchup of top-10 teams is between seventh-ranked Brazil and No. 10 Australia. The South Americans are one of just two unbeaten, untied teams in this tournament — Japan is the other — but Brazil has scored just four goals in three games, same as Australia. The difference is Brazil hasn't allowed any while Australia has given up four, including three by the U.S. in its opener.

On the other end of the excitement scale is France versus South Korea. After being stunned in a 2-0 loss to Colombia, France rebounded to rout Mexico and win its group while South Korea needed a friendly crossbar on the last play of its last game with Spain to advance.

France scored as many goals in the first 36 minutes against Mexico as South Korea scored in three games. Plus, no team in the second round has allowed as many goals as the Koreans, who have conceded five.

So if everything goes to form, expect to see the same familiar flags flying in the quarterfinals with China, the U.S., Germany, France, Brazil, Japan, Norway and Canada all likely to go through.

Of those, only France has played in fewer than four World Cups and only France and host Canada have failed to reach a World Cup final.

So in women's soccer, it seems the more things change the more they stay the same.

Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11

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