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WOMAN OF THE HOUR

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, president of the 203-nation Federation Internationale de Football Assn., said, “The future of football is feminine,” he was speaking, of course, about soccer.

But he could also have been talking about Marla Messing, a 35-year-old attorney from Brentwood who, as president and chief executive of the third FIFA Women’s World Cup, is charged with making the tournament a success on par with the men’s World Cup in 1994, an event run by her mentor, Alan Rothenberg. The tournament is being billed as the largest single-sport women’s event in the world and a watershed moment for women’s sports in general.

Though the 5-foot Messing is shouldering tremendous expectations, those who know her have no doubt in her ability to pull it off.

“She’s smart, she’s very hard-driving on herself and the people around her,” Rothenberg said. “It’s all business. She pushes [her staff], but not any harder than she pushes herself.”

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Only a few years ago, the idea that a woman could be in such a position of responsibility in world soccer would have been out of the question.

Until Blatter’s election in Paris last June, FIFA, the world governing body of the sport, was held in the gnarled grip of Joao Havelange, an 82-year-old Brazilian whose 24-year reign as president was marked by autocratic practices and outdated ideas. Blatter is working to change entrenched attitudes, but progress is gradual.

“FIFA is pretty old school,” acknowledged Rothenberg, who earned Havelange’s trust while staging the immensely successful soccer tournament of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and the even more successful 1994 World Cup in the U.S.

“They’re not accustomed to having women in high places. And Marla obviously surprises them when they first see her. Because of her size and her age, they figure, ‘Who is this little girl?’

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“So when you go into a FIFA organizing committee meeting and there’s not a single woman in the room except for secretaries taking the minutes, and then I introduce Marla, they say, ‘What are you doing, Rothenberg? Have you lost your senses? You’re putting women in responsible jobs.’ ”

Messing has first-hand experience with such attitudes.

She was 27 in 1992 when Rothenberg, then president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, made her one of his key lieutenants for World Cup ’94, an executive vice president in charge of ticketing, entertainment and special events.

That Messing was responsible for 3.5 million tickets being sold for the ’94 tournament--the most in World Cup history--didn’t alter FIFA’s attitude.

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Later, after traveling to Zurich with Rothenberg and making a Women’s World Cup presentation to FIFA leaders, she had to endure such comments as, “We’d like to thank Mr. Rothenberg and his assistant. . . .”

This summer, however, Messing gets the last laugh. Though her $30-million budget for the Women’s World Cup is one-tenth that of 1994’s, more than 425,000 tickets have been sold so far, and the tournament appears certain to have a far-reaching impact, not only in the U.S. but worldwide.

The Law’s on Her Side

“I think I’m a sports fan,” Messing said. “But it’s all relative. When I look at my husband, I’m nowhere near [as avid as he is].”

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In keeping with the rest of her character, she is more competitor than onlooker.

Inspired by Olga Korbut and Kathy Rigby in the 1972 Summer Olympics, she took up gymnastics at 8. By 14, “like a lot of gymnasts, I think I was pretty burned out,” so she switched to diving.

Born in Skokie, Ill., Messing was reared in Glenview, Mich., the daughter of a manufacturer’s representative for children’s clothes.

She graduated from the University of Michigan, Rothenberg’s alma mater, earned her law degree at the University of Chicago and then went to work in Los Angeles for Latham & Watkins in the field of corporate and securities law.

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She was with the law firm before Rothenberg joined it as a lateral partner in 1991 and was one of the associates who was supposed to interview her future boss. That, in itself, provided a lesson.

“I knew who he was,” she said. “I knew of him, so I did all this preparation and wanted to hit him with the hard-hitting questions. But they paired me up with a young guy in the firm and he started asking him about sports, about Jerry West and the Lakers. I never got a word in edgewise.

“In fact, at the end of the interview, Alan looked at me and made some kind of sarcastic remark like, ‘Good questions.’ ”

But Rothenberg was soon impressed by Messing, whose office was two doors from his at Latham & Watkins.

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“He definitely had a sense of my work ethic,” Messing said. “He gets up at 4 o’clock in the morning, and when he got to the office, I would already be there. I think that really caught him off guard.”

That ethic has carried over to Women’s World Cup headquarters in Century City, where colleagues describe her as “pugnacious” and “demanding.”

She and her husband, Brett, who works for Merrill Lynch, have two daughters, Natalie, 2 1/2, and Samantha, 9 months. Both are, in a sense, World Cup ’99 babies.

She gave birth to Natalie two days after completing the original business plan for the tournament. As for Samantha, Messing was still at her desk in Century City the night before her second child was born.

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“She’s doesn’t sleep,” said Donna de Varona, the television broadcaster and former Olympic gold medalist swimmer who serves as chair of the Women’s World Cup organizing committee. “She missed a nanosecond when she had her daughter, and she was still on the phone. She’s a workaholic, and I think you need one in an event like this.”

Attention Getter

All has progressed remarkably well. Ticket sales are quadruple what they were for the 1995 Women’s World Cup in Sweden; the tournament has 11 corporate sponsors who each have kicked in more than $4 million to be associated with the event, and all of the 32 games will be televised by ABC, ESPN or ESPN2.

Messing--whose sister-in-law is actress Debra Messing of the television series “Will and Grace"--is intent on making this summer as memorable as that of 1994.

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The most difficult challenge she has faced, she said, has been in “trying to get the attention that I think the tournament deserves.”

The tournament might also be a slingshot that helps launch a women’s professional soccer league by 2001 in the U.S., where 7.5 million of the 18 million soccer players are female.

“In a perfect world, it would be great for the players,” Messing said. “But it’s a very long haul. You look at the WNBA, which I think has done a phenomenal job; we have great respect for what they’ve done, but they have the muscle and resources of the NBA.

“Most people look at this as a domestic event and ask me about the impact here, but I actually think the impact might be greater around the world.”

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De Varona, meanwhile, still sees Messing in sporting terms, not so much as a chief executive wielding boardroom power as an athlete still seeking that perfect 10 from the judges.

“She’s a perfectionist,” she said. “She’s a gymnast. I’d like to see her have a little more fun. I hope when the opening day comes and there are 65,000, 70,000 people [at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.] she just really has a good time.”

For her part, Messing is looking more toward the July 10 final at the Rose Bowl than Saturday’s opener.

“It’s been a lot of hard work, and to have had the success that we’ve had so far is very rewarding,” she said. “I just hope I feel the same way on July 11.”

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FIRST U.S. GAMES

Saturday vs. DENMARK, Noon, Channel 7 at East Rutherford, N.J.

Thursday vs. NIGERIA, 5:30 p.m., ESPN at Chicago

****

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FIRST GAMES AT ROSE BOWL

GERMANY vs. ITALY, Sunday, 4 p.m., ESPN2

NORTH KOREA vs. NIGERIA, Sunday, 6:30 p.m., ESPN2

* SELLING SOCCER: Adidas, Nike and other companies are banking on the success of the Women’s World Cup. C1

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