Friday September 26th, 2003

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Americans love rankings.

We know this because we rank everything, from "Consumer Reports Top 20 Socket Wrenches" to "Cosmo's 33 Ways to Please Your Man" to the good old AP Top 25.

Now the virus has gone global.

The good folks at FIFA, in the spirit of Equal Opportunity Nonsense, proudly introduced their own world rankings for women before the World Cup.

Lining the teams up for a belching contest might have been a more accurate measure than FIFA's way, which would have you think that the 4-1 win by "sixth-ranked Brazil" over "second-ranked Norway" was an "upset." (And, sure enough, that was exactly how USA Today, seizing on the rankings as if they were handed down on marble tablets from above, characterized the match. Remember: Americans love rankings.)

Never mind that Norway has been sliding precipitously ever since the 2000 Olympics and (most importantly) was playing without a healthy Hege Riise, its best player. Or that Brazil, which handled Norway in World Cup '99 and is on a serious youth-oriented upswing, would be fearless.

Had you read SI's World Cup preview (where we picked the Brazilians over Norway for all these reasons), you surely could have cashed in with those gullible, FIFA ranking-fooled Vegas oddsmakers. (Or could you? Does anyone know if you can bet on these games? And if so, does that mean women's sports have finally "arrived"? Somebody fill me in on this, with any stories of WWC wager success or failure.)

The 'Bag is not a betting man, but perhaps this is the best way for women's soccer to reach the mainstream American male: Why lose $$$ on the NFL and college football when you can win some serious cash by outsmarting Vegas and the FIFA rankings on women's soccer?

So just in case there is a Vegas line, and just in case you want to lay some money down and spice up that Ghana-Australia showdown on Sunday, we thought it would be good to give you an honest power ranking based on what we've seen in this year's tournament.

1. UNITED STATES. Something special may be happening here. For all the TV talk of "Mia Hamm's Team USA," soccer fans know there has never been such a thing as "Mia Hamm's World Cup." Two games in, that may be where we're heading this time around -- and it's great theater.

2. GERMANY. That Golden Boot prediction for Birgit Prinz (four goals in two games so far) is looking pretty good. Over-under for Prinz goals against Argentina? The 'Bag sez four. Too bad U.S.-Germany (easily the matchup of the tournament) is headed for the semis and not the final.

3. BRAZIL. Talk about skillz. The 4-1 blowout of Olympic champ Norway featured some of the most entertaining ballwork we've ever seen in the women's game. With her 50-yard run toward a breathtaking goal, left back Rosana is drawing comparisons to Roberto Carlos. And 17-year-old Marta may be the Beautiful Gamer, distaff division, that finally gets the women's game noticed back home.

4. SWEDEN. There's a significant drop-off after the U.S., Germany and Brazil, but the Swedes have shown themselves to be the best Scandinavian team in the tourney (take that, Norway). Facing elimination, they got a huge win over North Korea on Thursday and are sitting pretty for the quarters (if they can take out Nigeria).

5. CHINA. The (Almost) Glory Years of 1996-99 appear to be over. Tying Australia? Yikes. The vulnerable Steel Roses need a win against Russia to avoid ending up in the wrong side of the elimination bracket.

6. NORWAY. How much has losing midfielder Hege Riise hurt? Tons. This team was a shadow of its former self in the 4-1 loss to Brazil. Even if the Norwegians get by France (and they will), a quarterfinal exit against the U.S. is looming.

7. RUSSIA. Sure, they haven't really beaten anybody yet. (Ghana and Australia don't count.) But six points in two games is nothing to be ashamed of.

8. NORTH KOREA. I thought the Hermit Kingdom's crew would sink the Swedes, but one defensive lapse was all it took. Now NK needs a miracle to reach the quarterfinals -- and since that includes beating the U.S. by three goals, don't count on it.

9. AUSTRALIA. The Matildas finally broke their World Cup schneid with a valiant tie against China. But acing out the Chinese for a quarterfinal spot is going to require some help from the Russians.

10. CANADA. Beat Argentina (yawn), but that 4-1 loss to Germany (after being tied 1-1 at halftime) was a killer. It all comes down to a slugfest with Japan with Cup survival on the line, and while we like Canada (barely), this team doesn't inspire much confidence.

11. NIGERIA. Why is it that, whether it's Nigeria's men or women, the Super Eagles always end up in the World Cup "Group of Death"? Can't FIFA cut these guys a break next time and stick them in an easier group -- just for once?

12. JAPAN. Whitewashed the hapless Argies 6-0, but they don't match up well with Canada in their must-win battle between Atlanta Beat stars (Japan's Homare Sawa and Canada's Charmaine Hooper).

13. FRANCE. France vs. Brazil! Oh, wait, it's not the men. Les Bleus already got a moral victory with the W against South Korea, but beating Brazil to reach the quarters is a longshot.

14. SOUTH KOREA. You know, a combined North/South Korea team could be a title contender. Until that day comes, though, the ROK will have to be satisfied with being merely competitive -- but losing nonetheless.

15. GHANA. Gotta admit I was expecting more out of the Ghanaians after their six-week-long pre-Cup camp in Oregon. But that 3-0 loss to Russia on Thursday was a huge setback.

16. ARGENTINA. What does it say about the advancement of women in South America that the most passionate men's soccer continent on the planet is also the worst for the women's game? I love Argentina (the country and the people; lived there for a while, in fact), but this is embarrassing.

• You probably noticed on Thursday that Amina Lawal, the Nigerian woman who'd been sentenced to death by stoning for marital infidelity, was cleared by a Muslim court after mass protests around the world. The Nigerian women's team noticed too. "We've been paying attention," striker Mercy Akide told me on Thursday, "but she's a Muslim and I'm a Christian. They have their own way, their own religion."

In a country riven by ethnic and religious strife, Nigeria's women's soccer team is symbolic. The Super Eagles have only one Muslim player, Olaitan Yusuf. "[Nigerian Muslims] don't allow women to play, because it's against their religion," Akide says. "But we are Christians, so we can play, and our religion supports us."

Come to think of it, how many Muslim women have ever played in a World Cup? Sounds like a topic worth looking into.

• San Jose striker Landon Donovan must have read last week's column, where I pumped Quakes coach Frank Yallop for MLS coach of the year because his team is top of the table "without a serious MVP candidate." Well, after Lanny's eye-popping hat trick against K.C. last week, he's back on the MVP shortlist.

• If the MetroStars want to have any chance in the postseason, Clint Mathis has to get with the program. Not only was he invisible in the 2-0 loss to D.C. on Thursday, but his scuffed penalty (which wasn't even on frame) reminded me of one of my worm-burners off the first tee. Where, oh where, is the Clint of old?

With Metro looking like a team on its last legs, getting some hardware in the Open Cup looks more and more important....

• For all those people who e-mailed me about David Beckham being hopelessly overrated, where are you now? Not only is Becks winning Madrileños over faster than Ronaldo, Zidane or Figo ever did, but he's showing skills in the central midfield that we rarely ever saw at Manchester United.

• After converting her first penalty kick against Nigeria, U.S. midfielder Julie Foudy was forced to take another one when the referee ruled Nigerian keeper Precious Dede had left her line too early. Foudy made the second one too, but shouldn't this be the ultimate case of playing the advantage rule? What if Foudy had missed the second one?

• Does anyone else find it odd that, of the two corporate sponsors that were actually willing to support WUSA with $2.5 million next year (Johnson&Johnson and Hyundai), one of them isn't even a U.S.-based company? Props to Hyundai, but where was the American corporate support?

• Many thanks to Toshiba, whose WWC ad shows a female journalist (who looks suspiciously like Lisa Guerrero) applauding wildly in the press box. Guess the ad men have been hanging a bit too much around Brazilian journalists (who've been known to ask players for autographs during press conferences).

• I'm really warming to the idea of predicting The Double for the Chicago Fire. The best fans in MLS would certainly deserve it.

• Check out the great article in the New Yorker this week on legendary New York Times reporter/gourmand Johnny Apple by equally legendary humorist/foodie Calvin Trillin. If I could pick any 10 people in the world to share a meal with, these two guys would be on the guest list.

• Big ups to Scandinavian pigtails.

Pretty thin on the 'Bag this week, and I'd love to hear anything smart/creative/funny from you guys for my next column. Send it above.

Have a good week everyone....

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