Women’s World Cup poised to come out from men’s shadow _lowres

U.S. women’s national team forward Abby Wambach practices Wednesday, June 3, 2015, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The team is preparing for the Women’s World Cup that will be played in six Canadian cities over the next month. (AP Photo/Anne M. Peterson)

Women’s soccer was once treated as a joke — both figuratively and literally.

I remember a popular British comedy show aired a skit in the 1980s featuring two fans watching a match, with one complaining it was the biggest waste of an hour-and-a-half he ever had. His friend told him to wait until the final whistle, and when the contest ended the players took off their shirts to swap with their opponents. Cue the male spectators cheering the topless girls.

Maybe 10 years later, the weekly English Premier League program showed a few seconds from the Women’s FA Cup final. The goalkeeper made a mess of a shot, and the ball squirmed out of her hands and into the goal. The two presenters were laughing so hard at the mistake, they had to cut away to a commercial.

Two decades on and no one is making fun of the women’s game.

Last week we had proof of how far it has come with an announcement you may have missed, overshadowed as it was by the arrest of senior FIFA officials on corruption charges: International female teams (including the U.S.) will be in the video game FIFA 16 for the first time since it was released in 1993.

The U.S. has more kids playing soccer than any other country on Earth, but here’s the thing — 48 percent of registered players are female. It is now the third most popular high school sport for girls.

On Saturday, the women’s equivalent of last year’s soccer jamboree kicks off, this time in temperate Canadian climes instead of the sultry Amazonian heat of Brazil. In contrast to the competition staged in the samba soccer heartland 12 months ago, the Americans are favorites for the title and not rank outsiders.

The tournament kicks off at 5 p.m. when host Canada takes on China, and it unfurls throughout the next 30 days with 24 countries playing 52 games in six different cities. Of the six favorites, three bridge both sexes and are former winners of the male World Cup: Brazil, Germany and France. But the remaining trio — Canada, Japan and the U.S. — are nations that are not powerhouses of the male sport.

The Yanks breezed through qualifying with a 100 percent record, scoring 21 times and not conceding a single goal in five matches. They open their campaign at 6:30 p.m. Monday against Australia, with Sweden on June 12 and Nigeria on June 16 completing their first-round group. They should ease into the knockout stage with only the Europeans expected to provide any stern opposition, and it should be the quarterfinal before they are seriously tested.

The U.S. has never finished outside the top three, and with seasoned — and battle-hardened — goalkeeper Hope Solo protecting the goal, and a strike-force blending the experience of Abby Wambach with the youth of Alex Morgan scoring at the other end, even a third-place finish would be a disappointment this time out. I will be amazed if they are not contesting the final in Vancouver come July 5.

With the women’s global showcase taking place the day after Independence Day, how fitting it would be if this is the moment the women break free from the shadow of the men’s game.