The USA are back to back champs. Even though European nations are making progress, substance must always trump style.
Over the past few months leading to the global showpiece that is the FIFA World Cup, the women’s football fraternity has been filled with both inspiration and disappointing news. Some of the issues caused an international uproar while a fair share caused the rest of the world to take a pause, sit back and critically think of the issues that are affecting our societies. We saw Ada Hegerberg refuse to appear in the 2019 World Cup because of a dispute between her and the Norwegian football federation over the amount of resources availed to the national team. Some fans were of the persuasion that the 2018 Ballon d’Or winner feels like she has gotten bigger than the Norwegian national team whereas others did agree that maybe it was time we looked at how our governments prioritize what women do. Even after we went past that wave of the tournament proceeding without Ada on the field, there were still more complaints about it. It was firstly, the fact that the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) was introduced very close to the world cup which did not give players and coaches enough time to get used to the revolutionary equipment that is meant to improve the quality of refereeing decisions. There was also the general misconception that the FIFA Women’s World Cup (WWC) was a counterfeit of the men’s World Cup and its credibility got questioned by some. Cameroon’s “childish” behavior during their match against England in the round-of-16 and the “exaggerated” celebrations in the USWNT’s 13-0 win over Thailand also brought a lot of interesting conversations on the streets. In the midst of all that, nothing could stop the ladies from giving their best and we got to the end of the tournament where we saw the United States Women’s National team win the WWC for the fourth time, which is more than any other national team has won it. We want to analyse what this means for women’s football and think through some of the structures that have been put in place that enable the level of excellence shown by the USWNT.
USWNT winning formula over the years
When you win once, it could easily be discarded as odds being in your favor, but if you do it multiple times, then it means excellence has become part of your DNA. How that excellent character comes to life can only be as a result of intentional and systematic efforts in the form of structures put in place, enabling that kind of behavior. Here’s some of them:
1.Thriving local soccer leagues and international exposure
The U.S. has generally invested a lot into structures such as the university soccer leagues that do not only enable the identification of talent, but allows this talent to be groomed into the powerhouse that the national team has become. A report by College Choice proves that soccer has become a key part of college life in the US spanning across decades. This places the country far ahead of any other country that they get to meet at the world cup. In essence, preparation for the world cup does not begin a few days before, but begins decades before the ladies get to hit the field.
Beyond the university leagues, there are also thriving local leagues that challenge the players to put on their A-game all the time. Leagues like the Women’s Premier Soccer League and the National Women’s Soccer League have become the breeding ground for talent in the US and even the go to destination for foreign players. Some of their players also get to play in other leagues outside of the country where they are chiseled into legends of excellence. Local leagues have raised stars that include Hope Solo, Alex Morgan and Lindsey Horan. As a national team, they have also always participated in the SheBelieves Cup, and numerous international friendlies. This goes to prove that you cannot build a great team without exposure to opportunities that yield continuous growth.
2. Deeply inculcated “winning” mindset
The kind of attitude and character that has also been inculcated into the team is that of ruthlessness and unrelenting at all times. Only a team that has been groomed to be like that can polarize opinion by scoring 13 goals against Thailand and still play like they are trailing. This attitude is also supported by prominent voices in the US space that are calling for equal pay in the game and the investment of resources into growing women’s soccer in the US. Equally ingrained in the Stars & Stripes’ drive is the innate desire to want to excel at something they started. As one of the initial pioneers of the WC, it is not a surprise that the US have maintained that level of excellence over the years. They got to learn the winning formula way before anybody else joined the game.
Setting a precedence and inviting others in
The 2019 world cup victory is actually not just for the USWNT, but extends to women’s soccer in general. Regional competitions like the Total Women Africa Cup of Nations and the UEFA Women’s Euro Cup have also gained prominence in the field. Their contribution to the development of talent in the game can never be overstated. Players who participate in these tournaments become the cornerstones and jewels of their national teams. The bigger wave of women empowerment across the world that advocates for women’s equal inclusion in sports is also something that is contributing to the exponential growth of women’s football. For example, Procter & Gamble donated $529K to further bridge the gender pay gap in U.S soccer. Other countries like France and the Netherlands have heeded the call for inclusion in sports and have made substantial investments in their local leagues.
The investment in local leagues explains why the USWNT did not cruise through the tournament but faced fierce competition from Spain, England and France. Even Alex Morgan attested to the competitive nature of the 2019 finals by stating that “I think during the tournament it’s more emotionally exhausting. After, we are actually so sleep deprived — like it’s physically exhausting.” That exhaustion was a sign of how hard that win must have come for the US because other teams were equally determined to win the championship too.
Even the progress of the African teams that were at the tournament highlighted the bigger conversation about the growing and maturing nature of the women’s game across the world. For the first time in history, two African teams, namely Cameroon and Nigeria, advanced to the knockout stages. The only team that could understandably not advance were debutants, South Africa. The improvement can also be accorded to the fact that African players are now able to play in other leagues outside of Africa. For example, Thembi Kgatlana plays for Beijing BG Phoenix F.C. in the Chinese Women's Super League while Asisat Oshoala is blessing Barcelona Femmine with her presence. Such exposure gives them a feel of how the game is played on other sides of the world way before they go to international tournaments like the World Cup. In our past article, we gave a detailed analysis of how impressively unbeatable Lyon has become. Since it is an international club with players from diverse nationalities, their spirit, drive and energy is able to spread across to other countries as well.
The world has also been impressed by players such as Thembi Kgatlana who was named the 2018 CAF’s Footballer of the Year and Hegerberg who has gone to be the first woman to win the Ballon d’Or. More notably, there is also a rise in the quality of coaches who offer technical support to their teams. Some legends have returned through their teams today. For example, former Manchester United legend Phil Neville is now managing England.
Why USWNT’s win is important for women’s football
One thing we have gotten used to is the influence of the U.S. on the affairs of other countries. If the idea of equal attention, pay and investment in sports is successful in the U.S., it can then trickle down to other countries. Their win has brought even more attention to this crucial conversation in society and given the champions and the rest of the world, more evidence to further their cause. Other prominent figures like Megan Rapinoe who got both the Golden Ball award as the World Cup’s best player and the Golden Boot as its leading scorer have grabbed the attention of President Trump who was quoted saying, “the conversation is no longer about should we have equal pay, or should we be supporting women. It’s how do we support not only athletes but women in general.” The involvement of newspapers and cash donations from companies like Secret Deodorant have also given this discourse more positive attention.
We can never congratulate the USNWT team enough, not just for the win but the consistent excellence. It has helped the rest of us recognize and appreciate the true meaning of commitment and being deliberate about setting ourselves up for success. We have seen that the U.S. win does not begin every 4 years but generations before. Beyond the championship, it is also important to recognize the contribution of such performances to the more crucial conversation about women in sports, inclusion and equal remuneration.