When the Women's World Cup Swapped Host Countries Because of SARS

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Until 1991, women’s soccer didn’t have a prestigious worldwide tournament to call its own. Even though FIFA helped organize a World Cup-style event in China that year, they refused to officially brand it as a “World Cup” and instead allowed corporate sponsor Mars to assume naming rights. Thus, the “1st FIFA World Championship for Women's Football for the M&M's Cup” was born, and it was held in Guangdong, China over two weeks in November.

While FIFA may have half-assed their efforts in connection with the tournament, host nation China did not. Teams played in front of packed stadiums, and a capacity crowd of 65,000 watched the United States defeat Norway 2-1 in the final. The event was such a success, FIFA went back and retroactively attached its “World Cup” brand to the tournament.

When FIFA awarded China the rights to host the 2003 Women’s World Cup, the sport was on an all-time high following the wildly popular 1999 tournament held in the United States. FIFA’s decision represented a homecoming to the country that had helped raise the global profile of women’s soccer in the first place. It was all very exciting…until it wasn’t.

After years of planning, FIFA abruptly announced that it had decided to move the tournament to a new country because of the SARS outbreak in southern China. By May 3, 2003, the date when FIFA made their decision, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) had killed over 400 people and infected 6,000 more, mostly in China and Hong Kong.

"It will be transferred to another country in view of the current health threat in China," FIFA said in a statement after consulting with the World Health Organization. This began the hurried process of moving a countrywide event in a matter of months. Brazil, Australia, and Sweden had expressed interest in hosting, but the United States got the nod, largely because they had so successfully held the previous event and proved they had the required infrastructure. The tournament was originally scheduled for September 20, and FIFA intended on keeping that start date.

The U.S. Soccer Federation saw an opportunity as well. The Women's United Soccer Association, a professional league established after the 1999 World Cup, was hemorrhaging cash and proving to be a massive flop. While a hastily organized World Cup wouldn’t have made any immediate financial return—it was a “very close to a break-even situation” according to a U.S. Soccer official at the time—there was hope that the tournament would inject new interest into the game and help save the WUSA from imminent demise.

Six stadiums were secured and the U.S. managed to host the event on schedule, but it was too late for the WUSA. On the Monday before the World Cup kicked off, the league announced it had to suspend operations due to mounting financial losses. It would never return.

The tournament itself was a relative success considering there were only 128 days to prepare. It wasn’t able to recapture anything close to the magic of 1999’s World Cup, however—there was only one sold-out match: the U.S.’s bout against a North Korea team that had scrambled to get visas in time.

China, for their part, were awarded the rights to host the Women’s World Cup in 2007. FIFA also paid them $1 million for their troubles. As FIFA General Secretary Urs Linsi said at the time, "China had hired staff and had expenses so we paid them."

With FIFA currently embroiled in a devastating corruption scandal, fans are wondering whether or not the 2018 and 2022 Men’s World Cups will still be held in Russia and Qatar, respectively. While assigning these huge tournaments to replacement countries could mean a massive logistical headache, the move would hardly be unprecedented.