It seems that for every step the women’s soccer game lumbers forward, the sport finds a way of tackling it back to the ground. With a subtle sort of challenge. Not with its studs up, or with two feet. The delicate kind of tackle. The sort that the referee is unlikely to notice, let alone punish.
In the course of just a few editions, the Women’s World Cup has grown into a true event in many soccer-loving countries — especially those, of course, with a well-developed women’s game. Its growth curve, in that regard, has been as steep as the men’s World Cup was almost a century ago. Women’s professional games, and women’s national team games, are attended and watched outside of the showcase tournament, too, drawing an expanding audience.
In many countries, all of this is very new. The women’s game has arrived in a very real way, a three-decade process bearing fruit. Even the laureled U.S. women’s national team didn’t play its first game until 1985, after all, with most other countries following suit much later.
Yet for all that progress, things continue to happen like Friday’s unveiling of the three finalists for The Best FIFA Women’s Player of 2017. That’s the prize that used to be called the FIFA World Player of the Year and then the Ballon d’Or. On the list were Carli Lloyd, Lieke Martens and Deyna Castellanos.
Lloyd won the award the last two years, but even last year, her victory was a stretch — no arguments here about 2015 though, when she led the Americans to the World Cup gold. She hasn’t been anywhere near her best form for some time, and has hardly dominated. That’s perfectly fine, by the way, because she’s a veteran and these are off-years before the Women’s World Cup and the Olympics return in 2019 and 2020. It makes sense for the 35-year-old Lloyd to throttle down now. But reputation alone doesn’t make you the best. Or even The Best.
Lieke Martens is a valid pick. She led the Dutch national team to their first trophy, the past summer’s European Championship, when she won the Golden Ball. Although teammate Vivianne Miedema arguably probably had as much to do with that.
But Deyna Castellanos’s inclusion is truly baffling. She was apparently tabbed for her performance at the under-17 World Cup that happened outside of the time-frame the players are judged on. The 18-year-old striker has never scored for Venezuela’s senior team. And she isn’t yet a professional, playing for Florida State. Her selection is akin to voting a hot high school baseball prospect into the MLB All-Star Game.
Plenty of much more deserving players — like, most notably, Australia and Sky Blue FC’s sensational Samantha Kerr — were overlooked.
So how does this happen? Kevin McCauley summarizes it well over at SB Nation.
“It’s because a lot of apathetic people are allowed to vote in the name of making the voting more democratic,” he writes. “Coaches, captains, and select journalists from all of FIFA’s member nations with women’s programs are allowed to vote, which should prevent favoritism or a narrow concentration on players from one part of the world. Unfortunately, what this process actually does is allow people who don’t follow global women’s soccer into the voting pool without any kind of vetting process, turning the vote into one about fame rather than soccer performances.”
With all this going on, the New York Times reported on Friday that old tensions between the U.S. women’s national team and U.S. Soccer have resurfaced as yet more of the team’s games have been planned for artificial turf fields. This was a major point of contention during the very public and at times heated collective bargaining agreement negotiations that dragged on until April.
“The women are angry that they will close their 2017 schedule with four of their final nine matches on artificial turf,” Caitlin Murray wrote. “But the disagreement also suggests a persistent disconnect between the team, which is the reigning Women’s World Cup champion, and the federation. … And while the players were made aware of the reasoning behind each venue choice months ago — a transparency written into the new labor agreement — they contend that continuing to play on turf violates the spirit, if not the letter, of their new deal, which includes language assuring that natural grass would be the ‘preferred’ surface for matches.”
This is a soft sexism that runs wild behind a thin veneer of equality that’s supposed to placate critics, who are mostly insufficiently concerned to look behind the sheen.
Sure, FIFA has done important work in helping to stimulate the growth of the women’s game. And adding a women’s world player of the year award before there was any kind of clamor for one set the tone that the female version of the sport was taken seriously. The Women’s World Cup, meanwhile, was something of a gamble, but FIFA took it.
Could it have done more? Probably. But it did enough. Taking women’s soccer by the hand and guiding it into adulthood is a rare FIFA triumph of the last few decades. But all of that is undermined by making a mockery of that very award. As if to say, ‘You matter to us, but don’t get any ideas about being equal to the men.’
U.S. Soccer, likewise, deserves the world of credit for the investment it made in its women’s team over the course of 32 years. It received living wages and world-class conditions before any other rival. Then again, the federation also benefited from a natural interest in the game and a conveyor belt of talent churning out of the college ranks, courtesy of Title IX. The opportunity was there for the taking.
But you can count on one hand the number of times the men’s team has played on artificial turf in home games during the last decade, or maybe even two decades. And yet the same considerations that apply for the women’s team — rotating games around the country and into new markets; availability of grass stadiums; the cost of overlaying temporary grass — are germane to the men. It’s never a problem on that side of the gender divide though.
The women’s national team has become a cultural touchstone in our society. And it must be generating considerable revenue for the federation — something, again, to its credit, the players are benefiting from with considerably increased wages in their new CBA. Yet this issue remains unresolved.
There is likely no malice in either of these cases. The women’s game often gets short shrift simply because it’s always gotten short shrift, and sporting administrators largely just do what their predecessors did.
But the differences remain, and they are stark. Women’s soccer has come a long way. But every so often, like on Friday, we’re reminded how far it has to go yet.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.