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Women's World Cup Soccer Action To Begin Amid FIFA Scandal


The best female soccer players are headed into the sport's fiercest competition, the World Cup. Technically, it's called the FIFA World Cup. And it kicks off tomorrow in Canada. Of course, right now, FIFA is synonymous with drama - allegations of bribery, the arrests of top officials and the resignation this week of its president. NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji reports on whether all that has tarnished this year's Cup.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Here at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, tractors drive around, and workmen rush to hang the remaining World Cup banners. The venue's general manager, Trish Zimmerman, says they're transforming the main stadium for the Edmonton Eskimos football team into something international soccer ready.

TRISH ZIMMERMAN: There's no football markings. It's now strictly soccer. So the nets are up. The team shelters are up.

MERAJI: It's business as usual amidst all the FIFA drama. Zimmerman says, in Edmonton, so far so good.

ZIMMERMAN: I really don't know that it's going to affect the city at all. I mean, the buzz is still there. Everyone's really excited for us. Our eyes are all on the kickoff on Saturday, at 4 p.m.

MERAJI: Seven hundred miles southwest, in Vancouver, it wasn't all good at FIFA's opening press conference for the tournament. Reporters were told to ask about the event itself. And here's a sample of the questions they got. The very first, why aren't FIFA's top two leaders in Canada?


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: I know it's about the tournament. But before that, can you explain why Mr. Blatter and Mr. Valcke hasn't shown up to this press conference?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: (Through interpreter) A question before Mr. Montagliani, did Canada pay bribes to get to host this World Cup?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: This is the first senior competition that is starting with the scandal enveloping FIFA. Just how damaging is this for the Women's World Cup? How damaging is this for Canada, 2015?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Any question on the tournament itself?

MERAJI: The head of Canada's soccer association, Victor Montagliani, looked frustrated and denied any corruption in Canada's bid for the Cup. Canada was the only bidder, and Montagliani used typical sports cliches to say the Women's World Cup is just what the doctor ordered.

VICTOR MONTAGLIANI: It's an opportunity for women's football to shine some light onto the game that perhaps has lost a little bit of its moral compass.

MERAJI: Back in downtown Edmonton at Churchill Square, folks play on a giant chessboard underneath FIFA banners flapping overhead. Tim Adams is here. His day job across the plaza is at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In his free time, he organizes a soccer league for low income kids.

TIM ADAMS: This year, we're at 76 teams and 1,200 kids.

MERAJI: A hundred of those girls and boys will attend the opening game, where Canada plays China. Adams says he doesn't want the scandal to overshadow the women's tournament but does see it as an opportunity to take soccer back to its community roots.

ADAMS: This is our chance to reframe this whole discussion, reframe what the game is about, to bring it back to the kids that I'm talking about. It needs to get back to that grassroots level. And I hope this is the chance to do it.

MERAJI: Fans like Adams hope once the whistle blows tomorrow and the ball crosses the line, the ugliness of the FIFA scandal will be replaced by the beautiful game. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.

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And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.