There's a sporting revolution a-brewin'. Here's Kristan Heneage on why you're missing out
The road to the World Cup is one laden with obstacles. For the 24 women’s national teams currently competing for their sport’s greatest prize over in Canada right now, these potential pitfalls increase exponentially.
Take Christen Press for example, an American forward that in 2011 was told she was jobless. Not released by her club, rather her team had folded around her, meaning she could no longer earn a professional living from soccer in her own country. A common recurrence in the female football sector. “I wasn’t going to let someone else tell me that I can’t play soccer anymore,” she said in an interview, explaining her decision to move almost 5,000 miles to Sweden to continue her career with Kopparbergs/Göteborg FC.
Press is by no means an isolated case in Women’s soccer, especially in the United States where the domestic league has endured an unstable existence. Yet she, like many other determined professionals, continues to take risks in order to survive.
Consequently you may expect this summer’s Women’s World Cup to be unequivocally praised, an indication that things are finally getting better. On the surface it seems as if there is little to distinguish it from from the tournament in Brazil last summer, the play on the field is just as exciting with nations like Germany setting an early pace. However, the competition in Canada is not without criticism.
“There’s no question that if this was the men playing, it would not be on artificial turf.” American forward Sydney Leroux told VICE recently. This is the first premier FIFA tournament that has used artificial turf and in October a collection of players lead by Abby Wambach filed a lawsuit against the decision - citing greater risk of injury.
Not every player has concurred with their argument. When I spoke to England’s Alex Scott about the situation in January, she voiced no concern at playing on turf, perhaps sadly accustom to the facilities and lack of investment the game has garnered in the female arena.
Yet having spoken to countless players in Major League Soccer, where the debate remains an issue, the major gripe is simple: the ball does not always run true on turf. It's something Wambach cited in her lawsuit and moreover it's just one example of women's football lacking the basic infrastructure that their male counterparts often take for granted that have undeniably inhibited the women’s game from progressing more significantly.
Thankfully the play on the field has not been completely hampered during the current competition. The opening group games have produced intrigue and excitement, typified by Germany scoring an astonishing 10 goals against a young Ivory Coast side. Holders of the cup, Japan, are also an exciting watch as they draw on elements of Barcelona’s possession based style - something coach Norio Saski is roundly praised for.
The success of Saski has also captured the imagination of the Japanese people. Their opening game of the tournament against Switzerland attracted more viewers than their semi-final in 2011.
Scott’s England meanwhile drew over 1.5 million viewers to the BBC2 showing of their, albeit, disappointing defeat against France. Historically it's worth noting that English team have not beaten the French in almost half a century, so success on Tuesday night was far from a given. Alongside Germany, Les Bleus would be a fine bet to finish the entire tournament in the top spot.
Domestically both nations possess strong leagues. Of the eight contested UEFA Women's Cup Finals (running from 2002 to 2009), German sides participated in six of the eight finals - with an all-German final in 2006. The UEFA Women’s Champions League replaced the competition in 2009-2010 and has seen a ubiquitous German/French presence. Every final contested has seen the participation of at least one French or German team, with five of the six containing both.
France’s top flight celebrated it’s 40th anniversary last year, meanwhile the Bundesliga is 25 years old and their consistent success is by no means just down to some continental wonder gene. Both nations have established histories and investment in female football and thus unsurprisingly dominate it. The hope is that the NWSL in America and the WSL in England can also follow that path into long-term stability.
The days of hand-me-down equipment and surviving on a diet of Snickers and warm Pepsi in the way Julie Foudy did at 1988's World Cup in China are no longer here, but we're still a long way away from full-scale development in the sport - although it's comforting to know that waves are indeed being made.
It's a fantastic time to be a part of the women’s game, especially as a spectator - the presence of Brazilian forward Marta at the tournament in particular is worth the admission price alone, even though she may just be the best player you’ve never heard of.
"Pele with a skirt" is how Brazil’s greatest ever player described her, a fitting comparison albeit falling into the trap of gender stereotyping. Good friends with compatriot and fellow trickster Neymar, was equally as gushing with praise. “She’s the best in the world. I am so happy to have her here, to at least have the chance to play with her,” he said in 2011 before a charity game where the pair faced off.
Far from the only star in this constellation, Marta is just one of many that will light up this tournament in Canada. With the story unfolding, now is the time to give the Women’s game more than a casual glance. Entertaining and exciting, it has earned your attention, and it won’t struggle to keep it if you give it the chance.