I love the US Women’s National Soccer team. I root for them like an anxious parent, pacing back and forth, wringing my hands. I’ve been doing this for decades. When the team was knocked out of the 2016 Olympic Games, landing in 5th place, multiple coworkers came over to check that I was alright. I will be supporting this team until the day I die, but for the first time, at this year’s World Cup, a part of me will also be rooting against the USWNT.
Since at least the first official Women’s World Cup in 1991, women’s soccer in the United States has been ahead of the rest of the world. They’ve won three of seven World Cups, and they’ve never finished lower than third place. Although the team valiantly struggles for equal pay, we almost take that fight for granted because it’s socially acceptable for women to play soccer in this country. Or any sport for that matter. This acceptability exists on a sliding scale around the world, varying from city to city, even family to family; however, in the United States, more than half of girls aged 6–12 play a team sport at least once a week. While I knew not everyone had the access I did growing up, I assumed that at least other developed countries had the same opportunities to participate in women’s sport as I did in the United States. I assumed wrong.
Starting in 2009, I spent a year at the University of Sussex, on the south coast of England. I was eager to get involved in the women’s football team, but the experience was far different than I expected. I quickly came to realize that I was playing with dozens of women who loved the game, knew it better than I did, but had had little opportunity to play growing up. Often there weren’t teams or leagues for them to play in, or their parents wished their daughters would do more ‘girly’ things. One of my club teammate’s mother didn’t want her to play for a variety of reasons, but most memorably because she thought it would make her daughter gay.
The women I played with understood the game, knew where to be at the right time, and saw the field flawlessly. Yet many exhibited technical skills far behind their tactical play and football knowledge. I was baffled. This was England. A developed nation, the supposed home of the game I loved, a country that seemed to have had a consistent women’s league for decades. Yet, in a country obsessed with football, finding women who had consistently been able to develop their skills from youth was as rare as finding someone who enjoys Alexi Lalas’ commentary. Only then did I begin to appreciate how far ahead the United States relationship with women’s soccer really had been and how big the contrast for nearly everyone else really was.
In these last ten years, a small contingent of European countries — primarily those with historically successful men’s programs, but no titles in their women’s programs — have begun closing the gap between their women’s teams and the pack of past World Cup and Olympic winners. Some of the progress is fueled by investment and visibility from club affiliation and some by players gaining experience in increasingly stable pro leagues. Others are bolstered by football associations focusing directly on women’s involvement. The England Football Association have set a goal of doubling women’s participation in the sport by 2020 and UEFA recently set a similar goal for 2024. This visibility filters down to the girls and young women involved in football—now, a generation of women who grew up getting to only watch men on television get to be role models for girls getting into the sport.
However, we must acknowledge the gap between playing in the United States and playing in European countries with increasingly stable leagues is minuscule when compared to the massive gap in opportunity and resources between the top and bottom of the global rankings. Even within the teams playing at this World Cup, it’s easy to see that inconsistent investment or the rise and fall of league play have led to talented teams still being unlikely to pose much of a threat. In Nigeria, the Super Falcons have qualified for every Women’s World Cup since it began, but didn’t have a coach or play a match together for all of 2017. This is just one of many stories, and it’s ridiculous and infuriating. We have so much work remaining to get anywhere near an actual level playing field, but perhaps learning to close one gap can help us learn how to close many more.
I’m rooting for one of these European teams that have recently begun pouring more money into women’s football, because it’s better for the sport for them to win. Not only do I want one of these developing programs to see their investment pay off, but another USWNT win could stifle growth across the board. In 2005 the International Olympic Committee voted via secret ballot to remove softball from the Olympics. While the true reasoning may never be known, it is largely believed that the predominant factor was the US teams’ dominance. This is a dramatic example, but for the countries who are looking to this World Cup as a test of their investment, years of progress are on the line. France really started to level up their investment in women’s football in 2011, and are just now considered a favorite to win a World Cup. Mexico is just seeing the beginnings of their league, but they need time to mature. A United States win could lead to a reduction in investment across the board, especially in countries currently angling to improve conditions.
When countries succeed in improving women’s soccer, we also see a better competition. Twelve years ago, there were maybe three teams in each tournament considered genuine contenders for the trophy. That makes for a pretty boring tournament. This year the tides are turning. Having shown recent success on the youth levels, Spain and the Netherlands loom over the tournament as dark horses. The SheBelieves Cup saw England triumph over two past World Cup champions. Germany is a perpetual threat and Australia always seem to be threatening to break down the door to the finals. Maybe for the first time, the tournament won’t just be decided by which two or three countries spent the bare minimum or have the resources to field a team fit for such a competition. With this tier of newly flourishing programs closing the gap on the fairly stable tier of past Olympic and World Cup champions, we finally have an opportunity to see who among them actually plays better football as opposed to who has the money to win a global tournament.
I love the USWNT, but I love good football more. It is hard to create good football when people judge you simply for playing. It is hard to foster good football when no one thinks it is worthwhile, when they don’t give you access to training grounds or provide you with a coach or even assemble teams with whom women can regularly play. My (probably naive) hope is that if these European teams can succeed at the World Cup by growing the game locally and increasing visibility and involvement, they can pave a path for other countries to follow to find success. This time around, if the United States loses, and another team gets to taste victory, my colleagues may still ask, but I’ll be better than alright.