A few days ago, before the U.S. Women’s Team’s first game against Italy in World Cup qualifying, Abby Wambach told the New York Times that the (obviously slightly bitter) joke on the team was that they had to do badly this year in order to get media attention. “The irony of the whole thing is that when the U.S. men win, they get the coverage, but when the U.S. women lose, we get the coverage. . . The joke among us is that we planned it this way and that we knew this was the only way to get the coverage that we think we deserve.”
Now the team has squeaked a little closer to making it to the World Cup with a true last-minute goal against Italy in Padua. Next week’s game in Illinois will determine whether this becomes the first Women’s World Cup not to include the U.S., long one of the dominant teams in the competition.
The last weeks have represented one of the most interesting and important transformations in the history of global women’s football, suggesting an expansion and a shift in the dynamics of the game. Mexico’s victory over the U.S., and the prominence of U.S.-born women’s players on foreign teams, have highlighted the rise of the women’s game in other country’s and the attendant pressures put on the U.S. within this larger competition. It’s exciting, dramatic, and certainly worth following. The latest game had some remarkable drama to it, since in fact the game probably should have stopped before Alex Morgan scored the bold winning goal. Still, with U.S. qualification hanging by a thread it’s a frightening, perhaps decisive, moment, as Jennifer Pel noted.
But, as Jennifer Doyle has pointed out in an appropriately furious blog post, it has been very difficult to follow all of this except via twitter. As she wrote about yesterday’s game: “Most of us fans didn’t see today’s game. We couldn’t. ESPN exiled the match to the dark corner of the internet known as “ESPN3.com” – accessible only to some cable television subscribers.” The ESPN reporter assigned to the game wasn’t actually there. Worse, about the next, decisive match to be played next Saturday: “Right now there is no plan to show the match on television. SHAME ON ESPN, the sexist bastards.”
A decade after 1999, it’s amazing that this is still where we’re at. The usual booster stories about soccer in the U.S., in classic American fashion, make it sounds like a story of inevitable progress and expansion, a manifest destiny of sorts. Increasingly, though, especially for women’s soccer, it seems like we might be caught instead in some sort of nightmarish labyrinth, where moments of triumph and seemingly irrefutable progress just lead us back into silent alleys again. After decades of institutional investment, the development of tremendous talent, the incredible devotion of millions of players and fans, it’s still impossible to see a crucial international game on TV.
What will make a change? A march on ESPN? A million players, in their uniforms, on the mall, demanding to be heard, and seen?