The US Women’s team (USWNT) were crowned world champions last weekend, overcoming Holland in the final.
The campaign was a watershed moment for the sport, drawing in record numbers of viewers and endorsement. The BBC covered it almost obsessively.
But the close of the campaign has left a sour taste in many mouths, and most of it stems from the champions themselves.
From accusations of disrespect to suggestions of sexism, the USWNT have drawn almost all the headlines. And, at the end, not even they seem satisfied with the outcome.
A lot of this boils down to the fact the USWNT believe they aren’t being shown the respect, and adoration, they deserve. This, many of their star players have suggested, is largely as a result of sexism. There is some truth in this.
For all the high viewing figures the tournament drew, we have to bear in mind that football fans are essentially junkies. Football is a sport that dominates lives. People go to prison over it. Billionaires burn fortunes on it. Its history goes back centuries, and binds communities and nations. People plot their own pasts, set against the timelines of their clubs. Others live for the chance to stand on the terraces aiming chants and flares at the opponents, just for that bit of camaraderie, of danger, of tribal satisfaction that has all but died out in modern society. Starve the fans of their fix for long enough, and they’ll watch anything that even begins to resemble Preston North End vs Accrington Stanley.
The thing is, the women’s game lacks all of this. The history, the atmosphere, and, of course, the standards. For the average football fan, women’s football is a completely different sport. To many, it is barely sport at all. It is methadone at best.
This can’t be nice for female players to come to terms with, but it does go some way towards explaining the animosity towards the US team. Because the US are good, but my God, don’t they know it.
There is something remarkably unedifying about watching a game end up in a double-figured score, but that’s what happened when the US played Thailand earlier in the summer. Rather than ease off, though, the US stepped up. And then came the choreographed celebrations. That disrespect and arrogance shown to an opponent is the sort of thing that football fans, by and large, don’t stand for.
Then came the naffness of the Alex Morgan ‘teacup’ moment against England, followed by Megan Rapinoe’s ‘gladiator’ pose in the semifinal. The women have all defended themselves, claiming that the response was hypocrisy, and that men in their position wouldn’t be criticised. But that’s not entirely true.
These are things that go beyond mere celebration. The US weren’t celebrating, they were boasting. And that’s fine; men often do the same thing. Men like Cristiano Ronaldo, or Luis Suarez, have a habit of making the most of their abilities. But those names are as synonymous with dislike as they are with talent; people respect players like that for their ability. That doesn’t mean they are well-liked. You cannot behave in such a manner and then complain people don’t like you ‘because sexism’.
Another bugbear of the contest were the demands of many, including US players, that they deserved ‘equal pay’ to male footballers. Goalkeeper Hope Solo made a point of it, whilst many fans chanted for it. The UN even circulated a graphic, suggesting football was unfair because all the world’s female professionals earned the same in wages combined as one male player.
The player in question was Leo Messi, whom you may have heard of. And frankly, a cursory search of his greatest feats on YouTube will tell you all you need to know about why the comparison is so ridiculous. No woman in the world does what he does. Few other men in the world can, either.
Football is not in the business of equal opportunities, as the USWNT well know — they made that much painfully clear to the Thais. The double standards, then, are maddening. Why do they feel they deserve equal pay to players of infinitely higher ability? Messi, Neymar, Salah and the rest earn big money because their talent is a commodity to be sold in the form of entertainment. It’s a commodity no woman has. It’s not hyperbole to say that the average boy’s team could take on and happily beat a female national team. It happens regularly; the USWNT themselves, the women’s world champions, were swatted aside 5-2 in 2017 by an Under 15’s side from Dallas.
The journalist Miguel Delaney has pointed out that this is the first time that a US national team in any major global sport has been successful on the international stage. With it, we see all of the toxic traits of American sporting culture: the gloating, the ego, the entitlement, the superiority complex. But the USWNT don’t seem to realise that football is different for a reason. Yes, you can win everything there is to win, but that doesn’t mean for one second you will be loved, or even respected. It is the same reason as why, say, the oil money at Chelsea, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain has bought untold success, but that these clubs still lag behind the likes of Liverpool or Manchester United, historically self-made clubs, in terms of popularity. In old fashioned football circles, having a ‘bit of class’ about you is almost more important than winning. It’s not that you do it, it’s how.
The USWNT may have ‘done’ it. How they did it is another matter.