The day when the SARS epidemic caused the relocation of the Women's World Cup

The coronavirus epidemic poses a threat to the holding of major international events, such as the Olympic Games in Tokyo or Euro 2020. Not so long ago, a great competition had already had to flee before the threat.

In the list of threats to the Women's World Cup, the consulting company Risk Management Solutions had placed at the very top the terrorist risk in his report given in early 2003 to Fifa. The epidemiological risk is almost only a footnote. Aside from a few games from the 2001 Six Nations Tournament pushed back due to an upsurge in foot-hand-mouth syndrome or, decades earlier, a few games at the English football club Blackburn Rovers disturbed by the return of polio, it took more than a few microbes to repel a sports competition. That was until the SARS epidemic in the spring of 2003.

It was in April 2003 that the first doubts emerged in the face of the prevalence of the epidemic of this severe acute respiratory syndrome, due to the SARS-Cov virus. Yes, already a coronavirus. More than the number of victims, it is especially the attitude of China which incites mistrust. The first case is detected November 16, 2002, in the Canton area. Description of a WHO representative in the area, relayed by The world six years later: “The epidemic should not be known to the public and publicized, but, locally, there is a beginning of panic in people who rush to pharmacies to buy everything they can, thinking of protecting themselves. ” On the side of the Chinese Communist Party, it is radio silence.

Three months later, in February, the virus is only allowed a snippet in the WHO weekly epidemiological bulletin, with this brief comment: “To date, no influenza virus has been isolated.” Within a few weeks, this unidentified virus spreads in Hong Kong and Vietnam and is given a name: SARS. March 12, 2003, WHO issue the red alert. However, for the Chinese Ministry of Health, the virus is “about to be checked” since mid-February. Officially, Beijing lists only 22 cases in mainland China. This figure will suddenly drop to almost 800 on April 20.

Nice words that hardly reassure Fifa, which is organizing a Women's World Cup in China in the fall of 2003, and which has an immediate draw to manage in Wuhan in May. The city, which became world famous due to the Covid-19 epidemic, was then in a region spared from the epidemic, 1,000 km from the infectious center. Still. In early April, Fifa canceled the draw. A month later, after long discussions between her medical cell and the WHO, she ad the withdrawal of the organization of the tournament in China, which is carried out, by means of a check for a million dollars to cover the incidental expenses incurred. It remains to find a replacement, off the cuff, capable of organizing a World Cup in just five months.

Several candidates expressed their interest: Sweden, organizer of the 1995 Women's World Cup, still the prehistory of the event with sparse stadiums and an athletics competition to attract people; Brazil, the country of football, but not necessarily that of the organization completed on time; Australia, unsuccessful candidate to host the 2003 World Cup, which has meanwhile inherited the Rugby World Cup. And the United States, hosts of a 1999 edition which became legendary? No more motivated than that. “If it is to do worse than four years ago, we are not interested”, justified a senior American official at the Soccer America site. The event required three years of preparation, $ 38 million budget and a summer window to be able to use the gigantic stadiums of American football.

However, on May 5, two days after the withdrawal of the World Cup from China, the United States declare themselves. And they don't make the trip to Zurich, to the headquarters of Fifa, to do the figuration. An anonymous source cafes Reuters that the dice are loaded. The headquarters of the federation weakly denies. “Fifa above all wants to minimize the financial risk, argues Bob Contiguglia, its president in the Washington Post. If you look at it, the United States is quite capable. ” Australian organizers have understood for a long time and do not even make the trip to Switzerland. Brazilians and Swedes will not even be auditioned.

“We haven't reached an agreement yet, but it's only a matter of time”, said Alan Rothenberg, former chairman of the organizing committee for the 1994 World Cup, already held across the Atlantic, at Chicago Tribune. And to add: “I'm sure Fifa is aware of our financial needs.” Here we are: the United States is willing to help out, but not at any cost. As at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, where the IOC had to guarantee the risk of loss. Sports Illustrated estimates them at around 10 million dollars for this offshored 2003 World Cup. The US bid also made sure to negotiate a juicy contract with broadcasters, “Otherwise we would not even have made the trip to Switzerland”.

Three weeks later, it's no surprise that Sepp Blatter welcomes by press release to have found a luxury replacement in the person of the United States: “The 1999 World Cup was such a success that Fifa is delighted with the return of competition to the United States.” An Adidas spot materializes this handover.

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Despite the fine words from Zurich, the 2003 World Cup will be rather a degraded version: a budget of 14 million against 38 four years earlier, a final in front of the 27,000 spectators of the Home Depot Center, in Carson, California, instead from the 90,000 Pasadena Rose Bowl, a stone's throw away. The stadium was available, but still its resident club, the UCLA Bruins, had to accept that the synthetic lawn be removed to install real lawn. A question that parasitized the organization of the competition. Between the New York Giants and the organizing committee, the case almost ended up in court for the use of Giants Stadium, located in New Jersey. And American football has prevailed over “soccer”.

Last avatar of a preparation that was not easy, the bankruptcy of the American championship, therefore of the employer of 19 of the 20 American women, three days before the opening ceremony. “We wanted it to be public before the World Cup so that it didn't leak during the competition”, explains American Captain Julie Foudy to New york times (in English), eyes clouded with tears. “I still believe in it, I hope that the success of this World Cup will convince investors”, Convinces Mia Hamm, star of the American team. Wishful thinking.

The sparse stands for the group match of the World Cup between the United States and Sweden, September 21, 2003 in Washington (United States). (DOUG PENSINGER / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA)

Rather than strengthening women's football, the holding of the competition on American soil especially gave a boost … to the men's round ball, insists the academic Eileen Marie Narcotta-Welp in her thesis A critical cultural history of the U.S. women's national soccer team. Who benefits from marketing rights? At the MLS, the male championship of American football, which markets them. Sponsorship? Same. The choice of stadiums? To the MLS clubs that own them. And since the women's championship no longer exists, guess who benefits from the six million dollars in profit generated by the competition (to everyone's surprise)? You understood. “Soccer has become a 100% male space”, deplores the researcher.

And what about Sras? If there is a time envisaged to confine the Chinese team in quarantine before it treads the American lawns, it is especially the North Korean who will have a hard time with Uncle Sam to obtain visas. WHO declares the epidemic ended at the end of the year and a few weeks later, a handful of cases are detected in China. A total of 774 people lost their lives around the world, mainly in mainland China and Hong Kong. To reread this story is to measure the challenge that awaits the IOC, which will decide in May the fate of the Tokyo Olympic Games, scheduled two months later. Or whoever is waiting for UEFA, who could postpone Euro 2020 for a year, leaves to compete head-on with the Euro 2021 for women, already planned in England.


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