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Commentary: Women's World Cup Still In The Back Seat02:18
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Team USA won their first match in the Women's World Cup. Women's soccer has gained popularity in other countries besides the U.S., as a record 24 countries are participating this year. (Jewl Samad/AFP/Getty Images)
Team USA won their first match in the Women's World Cup. Women's soccer has gained popularity in other countries besides the U.S., as a record 24 countries are participating this year. (Jewl Samad/AFP/Getty Images)
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The current Women’s World Cup features 24 teams: twice as many as the inaugural event in 1991. Obviously more countries have competitive teams.

The women’s game is still in the back seat. But, happily, the driver’s getting kicked in the butt from behind, harder than ever.

Bill Littlefield

The quality of play has improved because so many more woman are playing soccer everywhere, and because so many more colleges and universities have developed competitive women’s programs.

Some of the specific indications of progress are more dramatic.

I can remember a day not so long ago when it felt as if the U.S. Women's National Team was playing way too many games against Canada, in part perhaps because it was a cheap date.

The Canadian team never won. Games were rarely competitive.

In the opening game of this summer’s World Cup, Canada topped China, 1-0. The larger story was the attendance: 53,058. It was the largest crowd ever to have attended a national team event in Canada.

After one of those games against Canada perhaps 20 years ago, I stood in a cold drizzle and talked with Michelle Akers, FIFA’s Female Player of the 20th Century, about her background. She had grown up playing on boys’ teams, because there was no girls’ teams in the neighborhood. She hadn’t known there was a national women’s team until she was invited to camp in 1985.

Some of the changes elsewhere in the soccer world are more dramatic. From 1941 until 1979 in Brazil, women’s soccer was illegal. Some women have said they’re still discouraged from competing, but at least they’re not risking arrest.

Brazil's Marta has said that encouraging women to play soccer is as important as winning a World Cup. (Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
Brazil's Marta has said that encouraging women to play soccer is as important as winning a World Cup. (Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

Marta, the five-time FIFA player of the year who is representing Brazil again in the current tournament, has said winning the World Cup would be glorious and that encouraging and inspiring girls and women in her homeland is at least as important. This is something she has already done.

The admirable effort by players from several countries to shame FIFA and the hosts of the current tournament into playing the Women’s World Cup on grass failed, but we can assume the effort has sent a message to the hosts of the next tournament, and it would have embarrassed FIFA’s leaders if so many of them hadn’t been busy getting indicted, arrested, or out of town.

“Are we there yet?” as the kids in the back seat ask.

No. The women’s game is still in the back seat. But, happily, the driver’s getting kicked in the butt from behind, harder than ever.

More of Bill's Commentary: 

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