SAO PAULO, Brazil – Women's international soccer has two major competitions, the Summer Olympics still being held in enough regard to bare mentioning in the same sentence as the Women's World Cup. It was much the same way when FIFA forged the crown jewel of the men's game, with the (men's) World Cup originally competing for King of the Hill with the other quadrennial showcase. Now the Olympics are an age-sensitive event for the men, and while it will be some time before we see a similar shift for the women's tournament, the shine is already starting to fade from the luster of Olympic gold.
For now, the 2008 Summer Olympics is the only thing that provides balance to an increasingly polarized women's soccer landscape. Holding the gold medal from that tournament, United States remains the game's premier brand, with classic players like Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly adorning a history that includes two of the first three World Cups. However, the last two trophies sit in the hands of a nation that increasingly threatens to make this a single entity world - a country that has many of the world's best clubs, arguably the best league, and an unparalled player production system.
If Germany isn't the standard, they eventually will be, and as they host a tournament they're threatening to win for the third time in a row, the competition's underlying questions are all about power. Is this still a bipolar world? Is the United States - top-ranked, and winners of the last major international competition - still on the same level as the Germans? And if so, for how long?
On Sunday, those questions start to be answered with the commencement of the 2011 Women's World Cup, a tournament carrying the lofty expectation of being the best women's sports competition ever. To Germany's credit, few think this goal is beyond them, the country having already proven itself with the flawless execution of the 2006 (men's) World Cup. Underscoring the dominant theme of the tournament, even that goal is not without a tinge of US versus Germany. The Germans are hoping to beat United States 1999's record for attendance: 1,194,215.
And should Germany do that as well as bring home another set of winner's medals, a country that has dominated U-level competitions (as evidenced by last week's 8-1 victory over Norway in the European U-19 finals) could be looking at a long, uninterrupted run of dominance. It's not difficult to imagine a Boston Celtics-esque dynasty evolving, though don't expect their rivals to succumb to resignation. The United States has not earned its reputation for dominance by cowering to a challenge, with the past rivalries between themselves and China, Norway, Sweden and Brazil always seeing the States emerge victorious. More recently, the US beat Germany twice in 2010 (the nations' last meetings), and with the States having a Abby Wambach or Shannon Boxx to answer every Birigit Prinz (128 international goals) or Inka Grings (62), only home pitch advantage makes Die Nationalelf the clear favorites.
While that kind of dynamic - the US-versus-Germany, Alpha-versus-Beta dynamic we're already starting to create - has defined many of the previous World Cups, the growth of the women's game means it need not dominate this one, with new onlookers and loyalists alike having an array of stories to latch onto. For example, the undisputed, young Michael Jordan-esque, best player in this tournament isn't German or America but Brazilian - 23-year-old, five- time World Player of the Year, Marta. Nations like Australia, Canada, England, France, and Mexico will be more competitive than they've ever been, while even a newcomer like Equatorial Guinea will offer a bright light of the game's future in Turbine Potsdam's Genoveva Añonma.
On the field as well as off, there is a litany of reasons to believe the sixth iteration of the Women's World Cup will be the tournament's best edition yet. Still, the event's true underlying question - one lying a layer beneath the relative mirth of US-Germany - is whether anybody will care. Early returns aren't promising. With the tournament less than a week away, the boy's U-17 World Cup in Mexico has garnered more attention than this fully senior event, while Copa America, Gold Cup and the European U-21s will continue to compete for virtual column inches. World Cup 2011 won't usurp those tournaments and transcend the skeptics and bigots to dominate the imaginations of those who await US versus Mexico at the Rose Bowl or Argentina versus Brazil at the Monumental.
Not that it necessarily should, though this tournament can recapture some the magic of Pasadena - July 10, 1999, when 90,185 showed up to see two teams, 26 women, and no goals. On that day, when the US faced China in the final of the third World Cup, not even two clean sheets could stop the game's rise. And while there have been setbacks to couple triumphs in the dozen years that've followed, Germany represents the opportunity to reclaim what was, whether it be through a Marta wonder goal in Frankfurt, Hope Solo captivating the crowd in Wolfsburg, or Germany and the US writing history in front of 50,000-plus at the former Waldstadion.
The 2011 Women's World Cup is not going to be judged by whether the German dynasty is confirmed or the Americans make a final stand. It's going to be judged by its product: whether it will make the Olympics an afterthought; whether it can set the standards for crowds and television audiences; and whether it can rollback time to 1999.
Richard Farley is the editor of and a contributing writer to FoxSoccer.com. He can be reached on Twitter at @richardfarley .