In lieu of the FIFA controversies, the 2015 Women's World Cup couldn't have come at a more perfect time
Unless you live under a rock, you've heard about the recent FIFA scandals, not the least of which being President Sepp Blatter's resignation. Seemingly in tandem with these events, the Women's 2015 World Cup started last week, June 7, in Vancouver, British Columbia.
You may also know about the artificial turf controversy, but in case you don't, here's a quick recap: FIFA decided it was cheaper to use artificial turf in the six stadiums for the women's tournament, and not surprisingly, the athletes were less-than-thrilled. A group of players — headed up by U.S. forward Abby Wambach — sued FIFA and the Canada Soccer Association, citing gender discrimination. But after they were stonewalled, the players withdrew the lawsuit, and the World Cup is going forward as planned. It's important to note that, not only have the men's World Cups never been played on artificial turf, but FIFA wouldn't dare try.
If you're still fuzzy on the FIFA disputes, "Last Week Tonight" host John Oliver does a great job of describing it with his usual candor and wit (Note: This was filmed before Blatter's resignation):
Luckily, FIFA has decided that all future women's World Cups will be played on real grass, but it's too late for 2015, apparently. And the players haven't forgotten: U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe said it best in a great article she wrote for The Players' Tribune last month: "FIFA made a $338 million profit on the 2014 Men’s World Cup. To say that it’s not logistically possible to install real grass at all the stadiums is not acceptable, in my opinion. We have played on grass all our lives. Now we’re going to compete at the highest level on a different surface. I think it has a lot of implications."
As my husband (who is a total feminist, I promise) countered, why does artificial turf ultimately matter? After all, almost every American football fields use it. While that's true, if you've played on grass all your life (like soccer players have) and are suddenly forced to play on something completely different for the most important competition of your life, you'd be pissed, too. "For us to be playing the biggest tournament for women’s soccer on artificial grass is unacceptable," U.S. striker Sydney Leroux stated in the Washington Post. "The game is completely different. It’s fake. So you don’t know how it’s gonna bounce. You don’t know how the ball is gonna run. It’s terrible for your body."
Like Leroux alluded to, the turf isn't just an inconvenience — it tears up the players' legs. To go back to the American football comparison, NFL players are covered nearly head-to-toe in padding and fabric, whereas soccer players have their upper calves, knees, thighs and faces fully exposed. This also means that players are less likely to dive for headers or perform slide tackles, too, which is a problem for positions like sweepers and strikers. The same Washington Post article cited a tweet Kobe Bryant wrote last year depicting Leroux's beat-up legs after playing on artificial turf:
But it's not just about the field — the implications are much bigger, mainly that FIFA is incredibly sexist (but we all know that by now, right?). The Washington Post also stated that when U.S. forward Alex Morgan was nominated for the FIFA World Player of the Year award in 2012, Sepp Blatter didn't even recognize her. That's pretty bad when your own boss doesn't know who you are.
Blatter is also quoted to have said: "Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball.... They could, for example, have tighter shorts.... Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so, and they already have some different rules to men — such as playing with a lighter ball.... That decision was taken to create a more female aesthetic, so why not do it in fashion?" In other words, Blatter's resignation couldn't have come at a better time — although ten years ago would have been much better.
Even with all of the opposition female athletes have faced within FIFA, they're still dealing with resistance from the general public, too. I can't even begin to count the number of people who, when I've mentioned that I like women's soccer, have laughed and asked, "Why?," then said something about how it's more boring than men's soccer and that the players aren't as talented. Yes, I like men's teams, but can't I like women's, too?
And why, ultimately, do I like watching female players? Oh, I don't know: maybe because I played soccer throughout middle and high school? Maybe because soccer is a family pastime? Maybe because I'm a girl, and soccer is my favourite sport?
But more than the sexism women's soccer has experienced, the players are just incredibly talented and deserve to be equally recognized for their successful careers. Luckily, that climate is starting to change. Female soccer players have started to gain recognition in the last two decades, and it all started with a certain star player from Chapel Hill named Mia Hamm — heard of her?
Hamm played for the U.S. Women's National Team for 17 years, winning two World Cups and two Olympic gold metals. Not only has ESPN named Hamm the best female athlete of the last 40 years, but she won FIFA's World Player of the Year award in both 2001 and 2002 and Soccer USA's Female Athlete of the Year award consistently from 1994-1998. Throughout the course of Hamm's illustrious career, she scored 158 international goals.
But although she was the first famous women's soccer player, many have followed in Hamm's footsteps, including her protégé Abby Wambach (who has since passed up Hamm's 158-goal record with 182) and in turn her protégé, Alex Morgan. Midfielder Megan Rapinoe, goalie Hope Solo (who has also had her share of controversy, but I'm not going to delve into that here) and team captain Christie Rampone are also internationally recognized and each bring something unique to the table.
This World Cup has been and will continue to be a great competition, and you're missing out if you don't tune in at least to watch the U.S. team. In case you're not aware, the U.S. Women's National Team is one of the best in the world. During the 2011 Women's World Cup, the U.S. lost the final game in a nail-biting penalty shoot-out to Japan. And then, two years later, we came back to beat Japan in the London 2012 Summer Olympics, winning gold. And while I'm obviously rooting for the USA, Japan, Spain, Sweden (apparently, after their stress-inducing tied match with us earlier this week) and Brazil are all worthy contenders for first place.
Ultimately, this World Cup has come at a perfect time, giving female players from all over the world a chance to prove that they deserve equal recognition and treatment. Hopefully (knock on wood), now that Blatter is gone, things at FIFA will improve. And it's already starting to look up: Last week's USA vs. Sweden game drew in a record-breaking 4.5 million viewers, which is more than any match shown on Fox Sports, including the 2011 Champions League finals. Take that, Barcelona!
So, why does women's soccer matter? Because soccer is the world's most popular sport, and everyone (men and women) should be able to enjoy it at any level. Because female players are incredibly talented and are great role models for young girls. Because they have resilient attitudes, choosing not to draw out every injury they get on the field hoping for a penalty kick. They can't afford to: They're already trying to prove themselves in a man's world. So even if you're not a soccer fan or particularly interested in women's sports, at least respect what they're doing.
Check out FIFA's roster to find out when each team plays, and tune in to Fox Sports (if you have a TV) to watch the games. Unfortunately, Fox has the sole rights to the competition, so you can't watch it on any other site or channel. Just another perk of this World Cup.