A women’s World Cup to remember

Exciting, skillful play was just part of the story. So were sportsmanship and a growing, family-oriented fan base.

Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports
US player Carli Lloyd (10) reacts after scoring a goal against Japan in the finals of the FIFA 2015 Women's World Cup in Vancouver, British Columbia, July 5.

In 1985 the US women’s soccer team was such an afterthought that it only received its uniforms the day before it was to depart for an international tournament. The outfits turned out to be in men’s sizes: Team members spent the night cutting and sewing to make them fit.

What a contrast to this year’s women’s FIFA World Cup tournament, capped by a dominating 5-2 win by the United States over defending champion Japan. Interest in US women’s soccer has soared in the interim, and Sunday’s championship match may turn out to be the most-watched soccer match – men’s or women’s – ever on US television when final numbers are released.

The victory embedded the US women as the dominant team in women’s soccer (called football outside the US). Though it was their first World Cup championship since 1999, the team has remained a top contender, most recently losing the finals to Japan in 2011 on penalty kicks. The US team also has won four Olympic gold medals in five tries.

Commentators used words like “fast,” “skilled,” “determined,” and a “joy to behold” to describe the US team’s play. These world-class athletes showed what a blend of talent, training, and teamwork can accomplish.

This, too, seems light-years away from 2003, when then-FIFA President Sepp Blatter, the highest-ranking figure in world soccer, suggested that women players could boost interest in their game by wearing “tighter shorts.”

Today, “We’re talking about them as athletes, rather than some of the conversations we had in ’99 [when the US last won the World Cup] – ‘My God, who are these women? They’re kind of hot!’ ” said Julie Foudy, a star midfielder on that 1999 team.

In 2015 men’s international pro soccer has been beset by scandals and is sorely in need of reform. Mr. Blatter has been forced to step down amid charges that high-ranking FIFA officials engaged in bribery and racketeering.

The women’s World Cup provided a welcome summertime relief from the men’s game, which has become grim and cynical in comparison.

“Women’s football is fresher, younger, less embittered, less tribal and more honest,” wrote Marin Smith in Britain’s The Star newspaper. “At its best women’s football is pure sport, at its worst men’s football is a substitute for war.”

In contrast to the international men’s game, few penalties were called. Instead, sportsmanship, such as helping an opposing player off the ground, was commonplace. The “flopping” (pretending to be fouled or injured) that mars the men’s game was absent.

Many analysts trace the US’s success directly to the introduction of Title IX in college sports in the late 1970s. It compelled colleges to provide women with more opportunities for intercollegiate athletics, including soccer.

Interestingly, a country’s success on the field (or the pitch, as it is known internationally) may also have a direct correlation between that and gender equality. A recent study showed a strong relationship between a country’s score on the United Nations Development Program Gender Inequality Index and success in the women’s World Cup (nations with the most gender equality in general do better). More-developed nations also tend to do better than poorer ones, but the tie to a country’s gender equality ranking is even stronger, the study found.

Fox Sports, which broadcast the women’s World Cup in the US, found that the games became a viewing event for whole families. Some 30 percent of adults between 25 and 54 years old watched with a child or teenager, a much higher figure than for typical prime-time programming or other sports such as American football.

“When you have something you watch with your kids you’ve something special,” said Michael Mulvihill, a vice president for Fox Sports.

The women are showing the world the right way to play. And fans are responding.

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