Times Staff Writer

Brandi Chastain, whose winning goal and impromptu semi-striptease supplied the exclamation points at the end of the 1999 Women’s World Cup, was on familiar ground.

Standing outside the locker room at Spartan Stadium in San Jose, the two-time world champion and Olympic gold medalist was fielding questions about this year’s tournament, which begins Saturday at Philadelphia.

Without warning, the conversation veered in an unexpected direction.

“Who is your favorite player in the world?” a European reporter asked.

“It’s probably between Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Roy Keane,” Chastain said. “It’s not Manchester United that I like. I just like those players. I like [Real Madrid’s Luis] Figo. I like [Zinedine] Zidane. I appreciate those players.”


The reporter persisted.

“From the U.S. national team between girls, which star is most popular, from the men’s soccer,” he asked, making a bit of a verbal hash of his question.

“If we had to take a poll, probably I’d say [it would be] between [David] Beckham, Figo and Ronaldo,” Chastain said. “We like to watch Real Madrid and Manchester United. Beckham because he’s a fashionista. The girls like that.”

It is difficult to imagine reporters at a men’s World Cup asking Oliver Kahn or Thierry Henry which female players they most admire, but that does not mean that the fourth FIFA Women’s World Cup will be without its personalities.

Far from it.

Each of the 16 teams taking part in the three-week tournament has its standout players, but apart from U.S. striker Mia Hamm, the one likely to attract the most attention early on probably won’t play at all.

That would be Milene Domingues of Brazil, perhaps better known as Mrs. Ronaldo, the 24-year-old wife of Brazil’s 2002 World Cup-winning striker.

Brazil is not one of the tournament’s four favorites -- China, Germany, Norway and the United States occupy that high ground -- but neither is it a complete outsider.

The selection of the blond Domingues, therefore, has caused some consternation in the Brazilian camp, where she has been nicknamed “Barbie” by fellow players.

“Funnily, when I was small I never played with dolls, I always pulled off their heads to run out and play football,” Domingues told Agence France-Presse.

Paulo Goncalves, Brazil’s 66-year-old coach, must have felt like pulling off a few heads himself when he was ordered by the Brazilian soccer federation to include Domingues on his roster to popularize women’s soccer in Brazil.

Brazil, which finished third in 1999 and won the gold medal at the recent Pan American Games in the Dominican Republic, will be led by Katia, Chastain’s teammate on the San Jose CyberRays.

With Goncalves having selected seven forwards, seven midfielders and only four defenders, it is safe to say that the Brazilian attack will be something to behold.

“We will score goals,” Goncalves promised.

Brazil is in the same group as 1995 world champion and 2000 Olympic gold medal-winner Norway, and the two are expected to advance to the quarterfinals at the expense of France and South Korea.

Norway opens the tournament Saturday against France at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, and Coach Age Steen expects his team to be playing in the Oct. 12 final at the Home Depot Center in Carson.

If so, much will depend on the goal-scoring prowess of forwards Dagny Mellgren of the Boston Breakers, one of four Norwegian players in the Women’s United Soccer Assn., and Marianne Pettersen. Between them, they have scored 101 goals for Norway.

Much, too, depends on the availability of world and European champion and Olympic gold medalist Hege Riise, the playmaking midfielder who wrecked her knee in May while playing for the Carolina Courage and who only now is regaining match fitness.

“She is getting better and better every day,” Steen told the Web site. “She can be our joker off the bench.”

Like the Norwegians, the Germans come into the tournament with every hope of reaching the final four and perhaps doing even better.

Coach Tina Theune-Meyer’s squad was tripped by the United States in the quarterfinals in 1999, when it allowed a 2-1 lead to turn into a 3-2 loss in Land- over, Md., but was recently strengthened by the return from brief retirement of 2001 European champions Maren Meinert and Steffi Jones.

Meinert, of the Boston Breakers, was WUSA’s player of the year in 2003 and is the perfect foil for powerful striker Birgit Prinz.

Veteran Bettina Wiegmann, about to play in her fourth World Cup, believes that Germany has “a cohesive and balanced team with a good spirit and no cliques,” and that it can be a serious title contender.

“We can definitely make the semifinals,” said Jones, a defender for WUSA’s Washington Freedom.

The only stumbling block in Germany’s path in the first round is Canada, which, along with Sweden and North Korea, is a potentially dangerous dark horse. The other two teams in the group, World Cup newcomer Argentina and Japan, offer little threat.

The Canadians, however, could be the surprise of the tournament. Coach Even Pellerud coached Norway to its 1995 world championship and has Canada on the verge of breaking into the world’s top 10.

Pellerud selected six players from the team that was host and finished second to the U.S. at last year’s FIFA Under-19 Women’s World Championship and said on the Canada Soccer Assn. Web site that the team has “a good mixture of speed, skill and leadership.”

The leadership comes from all-time leading goal scorer Charmaine Hooper of the Atlanta Beat. The speed comes from her heir apparent, Christine Sinclair, who was the top scorer and most valuable player at the under-19 world championship and then led the University of Portland to the 2002 NCAA title.

The Canadians might be destined to face China in the quarterfinals, however, and it would be a massive upset if they were to get past the 1999 runners-up.

China Coach Ma Liangxing expects “quite a few upsets,” however, and even said so at the Women’s World Cup draw in July.

But with Australia, Ghana and Russia as their first-round opponents, the Chinese should advance with ease, and standouts such as striker Sun Wen and midfielder Zhao Lihong can save some energy for the later rounds.

Those who have played out the tournament on paper envision the U.S. and China once again meeting in the final, but the Americans’ road there will not be an open highway.

Coach April Heinrichs’ squad opens against Sweden on Sunday in Washington, and the Swedes are the fifth-ranked team in the world.

En route to their first world championship, in China in 1991, the Americans were involved in a memorable tussle with Sweden, eventually winning, 3-2, but they are only 1-1-3 against the Swedes in the last four years.

Sweden Coach Marika Domanski-Lyfors has reason to be confident, therefore, especially with the likes of forwards Victoria Svensson and Hanna Ljungberg and midfielder Malin Andersson on her roster.

Ljungberg, who has scored 48 goals in 87 matches for her country, is so talented that she has been linked with a move to Perugia in Italy’s Serie A men’s league. It would have been a publicity stunt, of course, and never came about, but it does indicate just how good a player she is.

The U.S. and Sweden also have to play African champion Nigeria and Asian champion North Korea, which has the distinction of having beaten China the last three times the countries have met.

“I think they’re more mysterious than China because they’ve found a way to beat them,” Chastain said of Coach Ri Song-Gun’s North Korean players. “That makes them very intriguing, I think.”

Added Domanski-Lyfors, who scouted the North Koreans during the Asian Games:

“They are one of the best teams in the world, we know that.”

The true best team will not be known until Oct. 12, and between now and then almost anything can happen.

Mrs. Ronaldo might even get a game.

Or at least her own Barbie doll.