Today’s World Cup matches, alternately exhilarating and devastating, were a powerful demonstration of the global strength of women’s football. Though of course both German and England fans are deeply disappointed tonight, the upending of traditional hierarchies in the game — exemplified by Japan’s surprise victory over Germany — can be read as a good sign for the future of the game. The competition is fierce, diverse and surprising, and it is so despite long-standing inequalities and lack of support from national federations: it is where it is because of the work of devoted and talented coaches and players, a number of whom we say play themselves literally into the ground today.
I expected the France-England match up to be the nail-biter of the day. It certainly was one: grueling for the players, and pretty grueling for fans of both teams too. I went into the game rooting for France, who played beautifully. When you root for France, you often find yourself twisted around on the floor, unbelieving, because so often beautiful play doesn’t lead to wins or goals. Today I felt that sinking feeling several times, and in fact was convinced England was going to win for much of the game, down the end.
The drama of the games was enough to pull my son — normally impervious to the seductions of football — into the fray, and he drew a picture of Jill Scott’s goal against France that somehow captures for me some of the anguish and madness of the game. (He has an illustrious history of drawing soccer games.)
I never stopped rooting for France, but somehow I also started rooting for England too. (I realize this is not really good for one’s mental health.) I couldn’t root against them, as they broke up the French attacks, soldiered on incredibly well despite injuries, into additional time. Their play was tenacious, heroic, and in it’s own way epic. At a certain point, I just couldn’t stand watching the game anymore. I left the room twice — during the last minutes of the game, and again during PKs. I missed France’s last-minute goal, and I watched the penalty kicks out of the corner of my eye, with the sound turned off. Either outcome seemed somehow tragic, for both teams had brought an incredible level of play to the field. Watching this again later, though, I was impressed by the relatively cool and clinical way the last 4 French players shot their kicks, especially given the fact that Abily’s was blocked. Congratulations to France for going to the semi-finals for the first time in history, and equally strong condolences to England who should and could just as easily have been there.
My afternoon plan — to follow the certain triumph of Germany from a distance — was disrupted by the brilliant play of the Japanese. I was pulled back to the screen. That game will probably overshadow the England-France game in the history of the women’s World Cup for many for it’s thoroughly unexpected, course and outcome. I can only imagine the sorrow emanating from the pores of many German fans, but can’t help feeling elation too for the history-making Japanese team. How are we supposed to live with so much contradictory emotion, so many cross-currents of loyalty and meaning? Football is enough to drive you crazy on a day like today.
The only consolation, perhaps, is what a powerful statement both teams made today about the power and drama of women’s soccer, it’s capacity not just to equal but in many ways surpass men’s teams, and the future it certainly deserves — if only the media and football federations can understand that. These games should push us to begin to think carefully, and comparatively, about how the various professional leagues and academies in different countries have enabled countries like Japan and France to do so well in this cup. We tend to think about this in the U.S. in relation to the high of 1999, and the question of why women’s football has struggled professionally and in a way never gotten back to the level of interest it garnered then. But there’s a much larger global story at work here: the U.S. women’s team deserves tremendous credit for having pushed forward the women’s game internationally, putting pressure on other federations in other countries to catch up. The intensity of the competition this year is a testament to the fact that the U.S. (along with traditional powerhouses like Germany, or else Norway and China which didn’t even qualify this year) will never again be able to assume dominance in the global competition. That is hard, of course, for those teams, but it’s a sign of the health and vigor of the game worldwide.
We obviously should not to be too sanguine about what all this means for the future of women’s football. There has been so much holding back the development of the women’s game, as Jennifer Doyle and John Turnbull have eloquently explained in recent pieces. The low level support given to many women’s teams is despicable, media coverage is still unequal and dogged by sexism, and FIFA and many national federations should be held to account for cynical policies and a lack of commitment to the coherent development of the women’s game. If we are able to be so enthralled by the play in this World Cup, it is only because — against the odds, generation to generation — players and managers have shown a commitment to the development of the game that shone through in today’s exhausting and exhilarating performances.