The 2015 Women’s World Cup recently ended, and the US women took home their first championship since 1999 but third out of the seven tournaments that have been held. It was a pretty big deal, the team’s return to the top, and the championship match against Japan was the most-watched soccer match ever in the United States. And hey, maybe the artificial turf controversy had something to do with it, and the recent brouhaha at FIFA, but there’s no denying that something special happened for the US team.
Or that’s what most people say. Me, I sat this one out.
I’ve been playing soccer for almost 24 years. I’ve attended matches for two different World Cups (1999 and 2003), and in high school I once played against a girl who ended up playing for the National Team, and yeah, she was definitely better than I was, and she probably worked a lot harder, too, but the gap between us wasn’t as big as I’d expected it to be. I met her once, at a women in sports conference, and while I’d been star struck by the prospect of meeting her, I left the event feeling she was entirely too full of herself. If I’m honest, the day she made the national team was the day my enthusiasm for the US team—for our team—first began to wane.
I know this fact probably says a lot more about me than about her, and especially more about me than about the state of women’s soccer in this country, but I don’t think I can take all the blame. See, I still cheered for the US team that year, sometimes getting up in the middle of the night to watch matches or get the live score since the games were being played in China. I was genuinely disappointed when we were knocked out in the semifinal that year.
One thing I always liked about the women’s game was its humility, its quiet excellence. While the men’s game often seemed to be just as much about selling the call as making the pass, the women’s game had Michelle Akers battling through Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome, while the men’s game had seemingly endless cocky and overdone goal celebrations, the women had Mia Hamm with her simple fist pumps and genuine joy. In 1999, when Brandi Chastain took her shirt and fell to her knees in her sports bra after scoring the winning penalty kick after 120 minutes of regulation and overtime, the sports world wondered whether she had planned it, whether she had been paid in advance to advertise the sports bra, whether she was setting a good example for children.
I imagined I played like the women on that 1999 team. I never trash talked. I never faked an injury for a call. When I scored goals, I celebrated with my teammates, but quickly, not doing anything that might bring attention to me specifically (a strange thing to aim for when you’re trying to score goals, I know).
But the US team lately, well, it’s not the same. In 2011, the team did some obviously rehearsed victory dances together after scoring goals. As my sister said at the time, “It’s nice to see they respected their opponents enough to practice victory dances instead of preparing for the game.” The team lost in the finals that year, a game in which I cheered for our opponent.
And then this year… First there was Hope Solo getting arrested for domestic violence and not missing a single minute of playing time because of it. Then the tournament started and with it came the whining and the drama, but the real reason I couldn’t bring myself to cheer for our team, the real reason I didn’t watch a minute of the tournament until the semifinals, was because I can’t see myself in these women any more. Maybe I was naïve at fourteen to look at Mia Hamm and see myself in her, and maybe things are different now that some of the women are younger than me, achieving things I could only ever dream of, but none of that changes the fact that the more I learn about this group of players, the less interest I have in them. I don’t see the humility I did back in 1999, I don’t see the quiet desire to stay out of the spotlight. They’re a group of exceptionally talented women—no doubt about that—women who work hard and love what they do, but we don’t view the game, this wonderful, beautiful game, in the same way. Somewhere along the way we grew apart. Yes, we share the same country of birth, but for me, that’s not enough, and I don’t think it ever was.