The biggest story coming out of the United States’ 13-0 rout of Thailand in its first game of the World Cup was not the beautiful shot that Alex Morgan curled past the Thai keeper in the eighty-seventh minute, after controlling a high-bouncing ball, or Tobin Heath’s technical brilliance as she blew by the defense, or the way Carli Lloyd threaded the ball between two Thai players and high into the corner of the net. It wasn’t the début of a group of young, creative attackers, or the variety of ways the U.S. used to score. What people mostly talked about instead is what the American women did when the ball went dead: they celebrated. One after another (after another, after another), their arms outstretched like wings, the goal-scorers would wheel toward their teammates, who lifted them up or leaped on them. There were pulsating group hugs, the delighted finger-counting of personal scoring tallies, even a few fancy poses. By the end of the game, several Thai players were crying.
The argument over whether the United States had been justified in running up the score and aggressively celebrating each goal was far more fiercely contested than the game itself. One side of the debate said that the U.S. women’s national team should have backed off when the game was clearly over. The other side said that it was smart to keep scoring. One side called the celebrations classless. The other called the critics sexist. “Would you tell a men’s team to not score or celebrate?” the former national-team standout Abby Wambach tweeted.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Perhaps the focus was never going to be on the field of play, because the 2019 World Cup was never going to be just a competition to crown a world champion. Wambach’s question—would men be given the same treatment?—hangs over not only the U.S. team but the entire tournament.
Forget the celebrations controversy for a second and accept that Wambach’s question is rhetorical. Men’s teams get more respect and receive greater resources, always and everywhere. What makes this World Cup different is that so many players, from so many countries, are using the platform to call out FIFA, their own federations, and, occasionally, even the public for it. It has become a referendum on women’s sports.
A lot has changed for women’s soccer, even in the past few years. The big European men’s clubs are fully investing in women’s teams. In December, FIFA awarded its first Ballon D’Or to a woman, Ada Hegerberg, the best female soccer player in the world. (Hegerberg, who is from Norway, plays professionally in France.) Total attendance at the World Cup is expected to exceed a million, and television audiences should be record-breaking. The media attention is unprecedented. The level of the game is astonishing. But, as the spotlight has grown brighter, the inequities have become more glaring.
In March, twenty-eight members of the U.S.W.N.T. filed suit against their own federation, claiming “purposeful gender discrimination.” Right now, they argue, the women’s national team is more popular than the men’s national team by many metrics—from Twitter followers to World Cup television audiences. They are, indisputably, far, far more successful than the men. And they earn significantly less money. “It is wrong for us to be paid and valued less for our work because of our gender,” the defender Becky Sauerbrunn said in a statement. U.S. Soccer is fighting the suit, arguing that the national team is paid under a different framework than the men and that the team is cherry-picking popularity statistics. The case will likely drag on for some time, and the U.S. team is hoping that winning the World Cup will bolster its members’ argument. Victory could help serve the larger goal of equality.
High stakes, then—and the United States is not the only team fighting for them. “We play for a nation that doesn’t even know our names,” a voice-over says during a commercial featuring the German team. “We have won the European championship three times, right? Wrong! Try eight times.” The commercial goes on to highlight the prejudice that the German women have faced, while, on the screen, a montage shows the players, defiant, in full flight. Brazil’s star player, Cristiane Rozeira, who scored a hat trick against Jamaica on Sunday, briefly retired in 2017, along with four other national-team members, to take a stand against the firing of their female coach and their federation’s neglect of the team’s needs. Hegerberg has chosen not to play in the tournament as a way of protesting the limited opportunities that women’s soccer players have been given in Norway.
For other teams, equality is a very distant dream. They are fighting for survival. The Chilean team practiced in parking lots. Argentinian players went on strike, in 2017, after they weren’t given their daily stipend of about ten dollars. The Thai team that was thrashed by the United States is, according to the Guardian, largely funded by the team’s general manager.
Meanwhile, FIFA, which has a well-documented history of neglecting, denigrating, and underfunding women’s soccer, scheduled two major men’s games—the final of the Gold Cup, a tournament featuring the best teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean, and the final of a similar tournament for South American teams—on the same day as the World Cup final. How could that happen? How could the organization push the attention of soccer fans elsewhere on the single biggest day for women’s soccer? According to Victor Montagliani, the president of CONCACAF, which oversees the Gold Cup, it was “a clerical error.”