SHANGHAI (AFP) - Sublime individual talent and entertaining matches drawing big crowds -- women's football has come a long way from the last World Cup four years ago in the United States.
While they are never going to rival the likes of David Beckham, Ronaldinho, and Thierry Henry in the popularity stakes, the best women footballers on the planet proved over the past three weeks that the game has taken giant steps.
With crowds averaging 38,000, the World Cup in China was a big success, so much so that the China Football Association said it was now mulling a bid to host the 2018 men's tournament.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter was suitably impressed by what he saw from a tournament won by an experienced Germany who beat Brazil 2-0 in the final.
The United States took third place and Norway fourth.
"Generally speaking, it is a big improvement by all the teams from four years ago in the United States," Blatter said.
"There has been an improvement in the speed of the games. Also, importantly, though not by all the teams, there has been an improvement in tactics.
"All in all, compared to 2003, women's football has moved to a new level."
The way forward now, he added, was the development of more women's professional leagues with many of the players competing in China not earning a living from the game.
"It is clear that women at this level are now able to deal with principles of good professional football. The only thing we are missing is professional leagues," said Blatter.
China's retired Sun Wen, joint-Women's Player of the Century, was also taken by the improvements she saw here.
"Having taken part in the previous four World Cups, I'm happy to see how football has grown in popularity worldwide," she said.
"The teams have made some terrific progress. In 1991 (at the inaugural World Cup) a small group of sides dominated all the others, but now, 16 years on, things have changed. All the participating sides have shown themselves to be more competitive."
The championships produced 111 goals, some edge-of-the-seat thrillers and just two red cards.
Once again, the traditional powerhouses were battling at the bitter end, but there were some turn-ups.
While Africa's representatives -- Nigeria and Ghana -- failed to get beyond the group stages Asian teams continued making progress with China, North Korea and Australia all getting to the quarter-finals, although Japan missed out.
South American champions Argentina were the biggest disappointment, with Germany beating them by a record 11-0 in the opening game of the tournament.
But the biggest surprise was Brazil, who made the final for the first time and won an army of fans in China with their silky skills, epitomised by 2006 World Player of the Year Marta.
Remarkably, no coaches were fired or walked away from the job although China's Swedish coach Marika Domanski-Lyfors is considering her position.
With no men's World Cup or youth World Cup next year, the women's game has the chance to keep itself in the spotlight and build on the momentum.
Aside from the Olympics in August, which for the first time features 12 women's teams, an inaugural U-17 World Cup will be held in New Zealand while the U-20 equivalent takes place in Chile.
"So you will see in the different continents women's football at its best next year," said Blatter.
"There is no World Cup or Youth World Cup competition for the men next year, so it will be FIFA's year for women's football."
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