By Steve Keating
VANCOUVER (Reuters) - With the Women's World Cup party over it was back to reality for many of the players who headed home on Monday to resume 9-to-5 jobs, school studies and raising families.
Women's soccer basked in the spotlight during the month-long tournament, delivering an entertaining spectacle that produced record-smashing television ratings and an eye-popping total attendance of 1.35 million after 52 matches.
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But only a lucky few from the record 24 teams that qualified for the tournament, which the United States won on Sunday with a 5-2 win over Japan, will return home to earn a living as a professional soccer player.
Players in the U.S.-based National Women's Soccer League earn yearly wages of between $6,842 and $37,800, which pales in comparison to Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo ($79.6 million) and Barcelona' Lionel Messi ($73.8 million), who both rank in the top five on Forbes' 2015 highest-paid athletes list.
The U.S. team will get $2 million for their World Cup win, well below the $35 million Germany received for winning the men's World Cup last year.
Some of the American World Cup winners, however, will cash in on their success through endorsement deals, most notably Carli Lloyd after she fired a sensational hat-trick within the first 16 minutes of the final.
But for the vast majority of the 552 players who competed in the Women's World Cup, soccer is merely part-time job squeezed in around jobs and families.
The Women's World Cup and the exposure it received allowed the sport to take another step forward but there is a still a large mountain to climb before the women's game can come close to matching the men in popularity.
While the 2015 World Cup can be considered a massive success by most sporting standards -- entertainment, attendance, and viewership -- it will not dramatically catapult women's soccer into a new orbit.
The trick now for FIFA and the national associations will be building on that momentum and maintaining interest between major international events.
"When we won the World Cup (in 2011) people began to take notice of soccer in Asia," Japan's Aya Miyama said before her team fell to the United States. "But just before the World Cup this time the popularity has begun to decline in Japan as well as Asia."
The challenge facing soccer officials in Japan was not made any easier after their devastating loss to the United States.
But efforts are being made across the board to level the playing field and improve on the depth and quality of sport.
FIFPro, world soccer's players' union, announced an initiative during the World Cup that it would allow women worldwide to join the union as direct members.
At the same time FIFA staged a three-day women's soccer leadership symposium in Vancouver with the purpose of putting more women in decision making positions.
But it is at the domestic league level where the sport must see real growth if women's soccer is to flourish.
"The national team is always the icing on the cake, it is the bit everyone sees," said England coach Mark Sampson, whose team was the World Cup surprise package and won the third-place match over Germany.
"But we can't forget the hard work, the dedication that goes on back home to get these players into a position where they can play in a World Cup, to get this team in a position where they can compete in a World Cup and put the game in a place where there are so many people playing it and so many people interested in it."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)