VANCOUVER (Reuters) - A Women's World Cup that began under the cloud of a FIFA corruption scandal is set for a dazzling finish when holders Japan face the United States in an intriguing final on Sunday.
The scandals that have rocked the soccer world for more than a month were far from the minds of thousands of fans who transformed the area around a sun-kissed BC Place into a massive soccer Mardi Gras in the hours before kickoff.
U.S. supporters decked out in red, white and blue were leading the carnival with the flag-waving, face-painted crowd chanting "USA, USA" and high-fiving anyone within reach as they danced up and down the streets, filling bars and fan zones.
BC Place, venue for the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2010 Winter Olympics, was again the epicenter of the sporting world, with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Japanese ambassador to Canada Kenjiro Monji among dozens of dignitaries joining the expected capacity crowd of close to 55,000.
One notable absentee was FIFA president Sepp Blatter, the self-styled 'Godfather of Women's Soccer'.
With soccer's world governing body embroiled in corruption investigations, Blatter said in an interview that he would not take any travel risks until everything had been cleared up.
Some lawyers with experience in international criminal cases have said Blatter would be ill-advised to travel after nine current and former FIFA officials and five sports marketing businessmen were included in an indictment announced on May 27 by U.S. prosecutors.
This will mark the first time Blatter has not presented the trophy to the winners since he became president in 1998.
He will miss what is expected to be an enthralling showdown between old rivals clashing in the final of a major tournament for the third straight time, with both looking to settle scores.
The Americans want to avenge a heart-breaking loss to Japan on penalties at the 2011 World Cup, while the Asian champions will try to get one back on the U.S. after an equally deflating defeat in the gold medal match at the 2012 London Olympics.
The final offers a fascinating contrast of styles and personalities as different as the two nations themselves with the big, brash, athletic Americans, who take a very direct approach on the pitch, facing a clinical Japan side that relies on a clever, short-passing game.
Editing by Andrew Both and Ken Ferris