Who will be the winners of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup? Tomorrow, the experienced U.S. side battles the significantly younger Netherlands side for the championship in Lyon, France. The Dutch are currently ranked eighth in the FIFA World ranking (compared to first for the U.S.), are participating in only their second World Cup ever, have one day less rest, and may be missing their star striker Lieke Martens due to injury. So the chances of the trophy “going Dutch” don’t seem very high with the U.S. team being the odds on favorites to hoist the hardware.
But ultimately, most of the possible winners of this year’s World Cup won’t even be on the Stade de Lyon field (or the pitch as they say in football) this Sunday. In fact, the vast majority may not even be born yet. If the 2019 World Cup were to really fulfill its potential impact, it will be an important milestone on the road to getting many more girls and women to start playing football. Not just in the U.S. but around the world.
This would be important because right now many girls and women across the globe just aren’t getting enough physical activity. The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that physical inactivity is a global public health problem because physical inactivity raises the risk of many health problems such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. It also has negative consequences for mental health. In 2008, about 31% of people 15 years and older around the world were not getting enough physical activity. More women (34%) were missing the mark than men (28%). That year, nearly half of the women in the WHO Region of the Americas and the Eastern Mediterranean Region were insufficiently active. In fact, in every WHO Region and nearly every country, women were less active than men. Since 2008, just like pollution, climate change, movies with Batman, bedazzling, and reality TV shows, things have just gotten worse and worse for the physical activity situation for both women and men.
Football alone may not reverse the physical inactivity epidemic among women. But it certainly could help. After all, you cannot deny the impact that football has had among boys to men. Not the musical group but the male gender throughout their life course. Throughout South America and Europe and now increasingly in Africa and Asia, you can see kids play footie in the streets, the alley-ways, the parks, the fields, and anywhere that they can carve out a goal or two and a playing area. The impact of such playing can go well beyond childhood years. Studies have suggested that children who exercise more turn out to be healthier adults later.
The attraction of football lies in its simplicity, which makes it more readily accessible than many other sports. The basics of the game are relatively easy to learn unlike American football, where the rules can seem like tax laws, or cricket, in which a game can last for several hours, except when it lasts for several days. Football also doesn’t require much equipment to play, which makes it a lot easier to play pickup football versus pickup curling or pickup Ninja Warrior. All you need is a ball or some balls.
Speaking of balls. There is no requirement that you have to be male to enjoy or excel at football. Yet, a lot fewer girls and women around the world seem to currently play the sport, compared to boys and men. Although global statistics are difficult to find, walking through streets in Italy, Rio, or wherever else football is being played for fun will give you a sense of the gender imbalance.
In fact, the U.S. dominance in women’s football over the past few decades has been a less a sign of inherent American superiority and more a sign of how few women have been playing football in other countries. For example, according to a article in USA Today written by Elizabeth Chuck, England’s national football governing body banned women’s football from the 1920’s until around 1970. Yes, that’s a football-crazed country banning half its population from competing. Speaking of football-crazed, Brazil, the country known for its single name football stars, actually passed a Decree Law in 1941, keeping females from playing football because “violent” sports are “not suitable for the female body,” according to the book History of Women and Sports in Latin America. That’s crazy. So very high heels are suitable for the women’s body but not football? This ban remained until 1981, meaning that generations of potential women’s Samba footballers had been lost.
Then there’s what José Luis Pérez-Payá, the then President of The Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), said in 1971: “I am not against women’s football, but I do not like it either. From the aesthetic point of view, a woman in a t-shirt and pants is not preferable. Any regional dress would suit her better.” Thank you Mr. Pérez-Payá for relaying your clothing preferences. Perhaps a blanket over your head would suit you better.
The U.S. got to the head of the women’s football curve earlier because the 1972 passage of Title IX forced colleges to have women’s sports teams, given American women more opportunities to push through some of this ridiculousness before many of their counterparts in other countries. However, America still has a long ways to go. Soccer in the U.S., for both boys and girls, still seems largely limited to those from particular social-economic classes, namely middle-to-upper income groups. Go to lower income neighborhoods in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles and you won’t find kids playing soccer as they do basketball. You don’t see as much pickup football or soccer in the U.S. as you do in other countries. When I was growing up playing soccer in New Jersey, most of my teammates were the products of extensive and expensive soccer camps. Moreover, participating in youth soccer leagues cost money, and the coaches in many of these leagues and in high school made very little effort to develop those players who weren’t already manufactured and pre-packaged.
This problem was called out by former U.S. Women’s National Team goalie Hope Solo in the 2018 Hashtag Sports conference in New York, when she described soccer in the U.S. as “a rich, white kid sport.” As Scott Gleason relayed for USA Today, she explained that “My family would not have been able to afford to put me in soccer if I was a young kid today. That obviously alienates so many communities, including Hispanic communities, the black communities, the rural communities and under-represented communities.” Soccer, or football as it is called everywhere else, will not have its full impact until a broader range of girls and women start playing it. As the trajectories of male football stars Pele, Luka Modric, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Neymar, and Cristiano Ronaldo have demonstrated, the best players often come from the most disadvantaged communities.
This year’s World Cup does offer hope that things are changing, that women’s football is expanding. There has been a noticeable improvement in many of the European national teams this time around. Countries that have for years produced powerhouse men’s teams like Holland, Italy, and Spain have for the first time offered teams that could challenge the U.S. The Cup has seem to produced more competitive and thrilling matches than in previous years. The road to the finals was not easy for the Americans as they had to get past tough teams from Spain, France, and England. It’s no coincidence that European countries, leagues, and clubs in recent years have greatly upped their investments in women’s football as Jake Lourim described for FiveThirtyEight. Mo money often means mo betta teams.
More stars are emerging too. Aside from U.S. players like Alex Morgan, Christen Press, and Megan Rapinoe, who got additional attention for comments regarding something orange that wasn’t the Netherlands’ jerseys, this World Cup has produced recognizable stars from other countries as well. Chile’s goalie Christiane Endler couldn’t carry her team to the knockout stage but proved to be a human wall, including some ridiculous stops against the U.S. Brazil’s legendary striker Marta became the World Cup’s all-time leading goal scorer, male or female, surpassing Germany’s Miroslav Klose. Japan ushered in a new set of young stars (Moeka Minami, Yui Hasegawa, Hina Sugita, and Rikako Kobayashi) who may make a greater impact with more experience such as during next year’s Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. Stores in Paris were featuring the jersey of French midfielder Amandine Henry next to that of another Henry, legendary striker Thierry Henry. Then there’s Swedish striker Stina Blackstenius, who continued her knack of scoring game winners in knockout games and has arguably one of the best names ever, a name that seemingly belong on Star Wars, Star Trek, or Harry Potter.
Team’s from outside Europe and the U.S. provided hope too. The performances of the South American women’s teams have not approached those of the men’s teams yet, but there are positive signs of change. Chile participated in the World Cup for the first time. Argentina had a stronger performance than previous Cups. Brazil remained a legitimate threat. Among the East Asian teams, 2011 World Cup Champion Japan continued to be a perennial challenger for the crown and gave the Netherlands a good run in the Round of 16 before falling. China, which used to be a power in the 1990’s, made it to the knockout stage. Two teams from Africa, Cameroon and Nigeria, made it to the knockout stage as well.
Then there was Thailand making their World Cup debut. Sure, they were shellacked by the U.S. 13-0. What do you expect from a team just getting started? The Thai team’s participation alone is a milestone and could help football spread in Southeast Asia.
Ultimately, it is so important for people to see a diversity of women playing football. People are much more likely to start playing a sport if they see others whom they can relate to playing the sport. A greater diversity of players and teams will not only continue to elevate the quality of play and competitiveness of matches but increase the impact of the sport and convince more and more girls and women to participate.
All of this performances bode well for the future of women’s football not just among the elite players but for everyone. One of the highlight’s of my recent trip through Europe was the opportunity to watch Women’s World Cup matches with the locals. For example, I joined a raucous crowd in the Paris FIFA experience to catch France edge Brazil 2-1 in the round of 16 and took in the Sweden-Netherlands semifinal in a sports bar in Stockholm. In both cases, the fans were thoroughly into the games, not just cheering goals but reacting to good plays and bad for both sides. You got a sense that this World Cup was really having an impact. Now let’s see how all this plays out and how many girls and women start playing what’s long been called the beautiful game.