At Last, This Was The Women's World Cup
The 2019 Women’s World Cup brought us a lot of things. It brought us team USA’s continuing domination, and multiple celebration controversies to boot. It brought us a confusing and unruly VAR system which has often overshadowed the high quality of most matches and come to some confounding conclusions. And despite this, the tournament brought us the best version of women’s soccer yet to grace this earth. Teams from six different continents have displayed incredible talent on a stage unprecedented in women’s sports. This really has been a coming out party for the global game, with teams like Japan, France, Brazil and Australia seen as possible champions before the tournament began, and with relative newcomer, the Netherlands, planting their flag by making it to the final. Even with the officiating shenanigans, it would be easy to sell this world cup as a Professor Hulk-approved absolute win, a success which saw a record number of new teams enter the tournament, and sustained good viewing numbers in the stands and all-time numbers on TV. But that would come off as FIFA’s success and would gloss over the work of all the women have had to put in just to make it to this occasion.
I’m not talking about the blood and sweat on the field. It’s one thing to fight to prove you belong on the field with your peers. It’s entirely another to have to fight with your own national program for the honor to do so with dignity and respect. From top to bottom, women have had to stand up and take control of their own narrative on a team by team basis, fighting for fair payment. Sometimes even fighting to have a national team. The women who simply want to play this sport and to be compensated fairly for that commitment are the real story line of the 2019 Women’s World Cup. For some reason, that story also has been the hardest to find.
In my thinner, less concussed days, my favorite thing to do on this earth was to play goalkeeper. So out of nothing more than a personal bias, I’d like to begin with the story of one of the world’s best goalkeepers and her national team. Christiane Endler, the superstar you’ve never heard of. She’s the best keeper in possibly the best women’s league in the world (which happens to be in WWC host nation, France) and has the MVP trophy to show it. If the name is familiar, it’s probably because you saw her snatch Christen Press’ soul with wonder-save after wonder-save in a valiant losing effort against the USA in group play. Three years before that coming out party, she didn’t even have a national team to play on.
Chile’s FA (football association), the national governing body of Chilean soccer, failed to schedule a single match for their women’s team for two years. That egregious lack of decency led to FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, taking Chile’s women’s team off
of the world rankings and marking the national team has inactive. Parking the team had saved Chile’s FA money as they expanded the profile of their men’s programs, but this short-term sacrifice for the men led the women’s game into oblivion. Not only did the women’s national team essentially cease to exist, but Chilean pro clubs also started to drop their women’s programs as well. It would seem painfully obvious to an outside observer that, if the nation’s governing body cared so little for the woman’s game, that the organizations below it would take that as an invitation to do the same. The ball was already rolling, and it seemed like the end for women’s soccer’s relevance in the nation. So, the players did the two things still available to them. Led by Iona Rothfield, a former member of the now “inactive” national team, they got angry and they got loud.
Rothfield and a number of other players unionized. It was a daring act. Many players joined the effort even as they feared blowback not only from the Chelan FA but from their pro teams who might follow the lead of clubs like Union Espanola, who had already disbanded their teams. Endler, the most high-profile name to come from the team soon joined in as well. Banded together, the women were able to put significant pressure on the FA to do basic things like schedule real games. Upon their return to play, Chile’s national team flattened Peru 12-0 in front of 10,000 fans, a record for the team.
Next, the union lobbied hard for Chile to host South America’s World Cup qualifying tournament in their nation, one to bring more media attention to the sport but also as a way to hold the FA accountable to them on a large stage. Bolstered by a tight-knit roster of players and crowds that doubled the size of the one for their return match, Chile swept through the tournament, losing only to Brazil and successfully qualifying for the World Cup.
One of the starting midfielders on that Brazil squad which beat Chile was 41-year-old Formiga, who is a living link to a dark past in Brazilian soccer. Formiga is old enough to have lived in a Brazil which didn’t even allow women to play organized soccer. A ban on all sports deemed “incompatible” to a women’s nature, sports such as rugby, boxing and most broadly discriminatingly soccer, were effectively made illegal for half the population in 1941. This lasted for 40 years. For those four decades, women did play soccer, but they had to do so in the shadows, exiled into the realms of back lots and dirty parks. Relatively speaking, Brazil has come a long way since then. There are professional teams across the country and the Brazilian Football Confederation is currently lobbying hard to host the next Women’s World Cup. When compared to the rest of the top competitors at this year’s tournament however, they are a long way from true progress.
Pro women players in Brazil don’t make a living wage, with the top earners pulling in less than $500 a month. There isn’t a truly viable league either in the nation like you see in places like France & Japan. Even the United States has the fledgling NWSL to showcase talent to the masses. Rampant sexism has also inhibited the growth of women’s soccer in Brazil. The national team’s own chief, Marco Aurelio Cunha, correlated the success of the side in 2015 directly with their attractiveness. “We used to dress the girls as boys. So, the team lacked a spirit of elegance, femininity. Now, the shorts are a bit shorter, the hairstyles are more done up. It’s not a woman dressed as a man.”
Some progress appeared to have been made in 2016 when Brazil announced their first female head coach, Emily Lima. She was fired after only 11 games, winning 7 of those games during her tenure. Former players and FA members bristled at the decision, but the current coach Vadao, replaced her, fresh off being fired by a Brazilian second division men’s team.
Through all of this turmoil, the Brazilian squad has been anchored by the likes of the timeless Formiga, keeper Barbara, Christiane, a force at striker, and Marta, probably the best women’s player ever. They were trailblazers in the sport, overcoming a surplus of sexism and racism amid a shortage of funding to become perennial title contenders.
A changing of the guard is now upon the team and soccer's queen gave an impassioned speech to those girls who will want to follow in her footsteps after losing what was most likely her last World Cup game:
“There’s not going to be a Formiga forever. There’s not going to be a Marta forever. There’s not going to be a Cristiane. The women’s game depends on you to survive. So think about that. Value it more. Cry in the beginning so you can smile in the end.”
For Brazil’s longtime rivals, United States, there have been a lot more smiles than tears. The US has been on top of the women’s soccer world really since there has been a women’s soccer world. Winners of the inaugural Women's World Cup, the Americans have been to the World Cup Final five times and have won four World Cups. Half of the Women’s World Cups ever played have been won by America. The USWNT, as they are referred to, have a setup which teams like Chile and Brazil at this point can only dream of. They have a massive following in their home country. They have a strong development system to foster talent. They have a level of funding from their federation which can ensure quality training and travel across the globe. But just because something is better doesn’t mean it’s perfect. As a united front, the USWNT decided to sue US Soccer on the basis of gender discrimination only three months before the 2019 World Cup kicked off. This type of open hostility with their parent federation is nothing new.
What would become the US national team’s union was formed all the way back in 1995, before the Olympic games hosted in Atlanta. The games were the first-time women would compete in soccer at the Olympics. Many of the USA’s all-time greats held out for better wages and benefits such as assistance with childcare from US Soccer, threatening to sit out a home Olympics if their demands weren’t met. Shortly before the games, their employers backed down and the changes went into effect weeks before the opening ceremony in downtown Atlanta. It was seen as a major win for women’s athletics. The team was able to celebrate their labor victory by capturing Gold at the games.
Since that initial skirmish, US Soccer and the USWNT have been battling off and on for the past 25 years. The team boycotted a tune-up tournament in Australia in 2000, months after the program’s most famous World Cup victory ever in 1999, defeating China on home soil.
The women’s roster also resisted the US Federation’s help in establishing their own pro league, the WUSA until the league threatened to go under. When finally asked for a bailout, the Federation allowed stood back and allowed the league to collapse. The Women’s team would complain about having to play on AstroTurf fields in domestic and foreign tournaments, something an international men’s team wouldn’t dream of dealing with. To drive that particular point home, in order to host international men’s matches in some of the biggest cities in the US (Dallas, Atlanta, among other) US Soccer will actually place sod over the existing fake turf in the stadium.
By 2015, after the women’s team had captured their third world title and had seen so much more global success than the men’s side, the issue of equal pay had crept back into the forefront. Their frustrations come down to a simple fact that any woman can sadly empathize with: Even though they were more successful and generated more revenue, the USWNT was paid less than their male counterparts. It will now be up to a US court to decide if this treatment is legally unfair. I think reasonable people can agree it is morally so.
These are just the stories of three teams. There are many more, like Thailand depending on a wealthy benefactor like they’re little orphan Annie or Spain leading a coup to depose their coach or Norway, with the help of their men’s side, winning a fight for equal pay but still missing their best player so has sat out this year demanding even more changes from their federation. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that all these battles have revolved around the simple act of playing a game loved the world over. And the games this year were great. The talent level is incredible to behold. Women’s soccer is finally coming into its own.
The score lines and highlights are great, but they threaten to bury the stories of what the women playing their hearts out have had to go through in order to even represent their countries. The work that players from across the globe have put in to make sure the girls who will take their spotlight in future generations have a better platform and better opportunity than they will ever have, that’s the real highlight. It’s inspiring, and a watershed moment rarely seen or celebrated in sports. This year, more than any other was truly the women’s World Cup.