When the US women’s soccer team won the inaugural World Cup in 1991, the players returned from China to discover that they might as well have done it on a distant planet. “We came home to nothing,” said midfielder Julie Foudy. “No one knows. No one cares.”
When the Americans go after an unprecedented third straight title as the quadrennial tournament begins this week in New Zealand and Australia, everybody back home and around the planet will know what’s happening down under and millions of fans will be tuning in during the middle of the night to watch.
“We can see and feel the game growing and the world changing around us,” said Megan Rapinoe, who’ll be playing in her fourth Cup.
The women’s sport has undergone a profound evolution over the past three decades and now is truly global and increasingly professional. “There are more players at a higher level,” said Kate Markgraf, the US team’s general manager, “and the quality of the player is much better.”
Nearly 200 countries now have women’s national teams and enough of them are sufficiently competitive that the Cup field will have a record 32 entrants, double the number in 1999. The expansion, up from 24 last time, gave entrée to eight newcomers and a priceless opportunity on the planetary stage.
“We find that we always do well but had never done enough to get ourselves to that magical place, which is a European championship or the World Cup,” said forward Amber Barrett, whose goal at Scotland finally punched Ireland’s ticket. “That feeling for everybody was just unbelievable.”
Portugal, whose women’s program languished unnoticed for years, made history by finally qualifying for the Cup. “Portuguese women’s football needed it,” said defender Carole Costa. “We’ve been in the Euros twice already, but the World Cup is a different thing. We know the impact that it had in Portugal for all the people who follow women’s football, for those who began to follow and for the sponsors.”
For Portugal, Panama, Vietnam, and the Philippines, this Cup will mark their first appearance in any FIFA women’s tournament. “Soccer is the most-played sport in the world and for so many decades women were not allowed to play in so many countries,” said US cocaptain Alex Morgan. “So we had a lot of catching up to do and I think that’s happening at such an accelerated rate.”
Some nations such as the US, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries supported the women’s game decades ago. “There were some countries that had a head start,” observed Markgraf, who won half a dozen World Cup and Olympic medals. “Either they were progressive or they had Title IX where they had to do it.”
In most of Europe, though, women at best were shunted aside for decades. For half a century, the English FA banned women’s teams from playing on member clubs’ grounds. “The game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged,” the association declared.
So when top men’s clubs such as Chelsea and Manchester City added women’s teams, England’s national team flourished, winning last year’s European championship, the country’s first major title since the men claimed the 1966 World Cup.
“They didn’t have to build the infrastructure because it already existed in the men’s game, which was very professionalized,” said Markgraf. “All they had to do was turn on the light switch or open the door to access it.”
The European final between England and Germany drew more than 87,000 fans to Wembley Stadium and more than 77,000 watched Chelsea and Manchester United in this year’s FA Cup final.
The European leagues — most notably in England, Spain, Germany, and France — and the National Women’s Soccer League in America have helped develop world-class players who can’t achieve the same competitive level in their domestic leagues. Eighteen Cup qualifiers have players competing in the states and Racing Louisville has players from a dozen countries.
Yet the women’s game in much of the world still is growing. Which is why FIFA, which wants 60 million females playing by 2026, is investing $1 billion in a development program focusing on areas such as league formation, technical support and expertise, equipment, and grassroots germination.
“I still talk to people today who didn’t even know there’s a Philippines women’s national soccer team,” said Sarina Bolden, the California native whose penalty kick against Chinese Taipei sent her countrywomen to the Cup. “And before I joined, I didn’t even know.”
So it was for the Americans in 1991. “You had to explain it,” said Kristine Lilly, who played a record 354 matches in red, white, and blue. “We play for the national team, the US national team. Nobody knew.”
When they won the Cup again on home soil in 1999 playing in sold-out stadiums, the Americans became heroines and role models for rivals from countries where female players were regarded as unfeminine. “The role model of cultural respect in the game and outside of the game,” said Markgraf. “That’s something that takes a lot of time.”
The US women, who’ve won eight World Cup and Olympic titles, last year won their long campaign for equity with the men’s program on compensation and working conditions.
But elsewhere the fight for fairness continues. The Canadian women, who won the Olympic gold medal two years ago, protested bitterly this year about program cuts.
“It’s infuriating,” said Rapinoe. “A lot of us play with the Canadian players, so we saw up front what it was like for them to go through what they went through during the year and continue to. That’s where we have a long ways to go. Some countries are not as far progressed as we are in attitudes and what’s acceptable and what the standards and norms are.”
For the next month, women’s teams from every continent will have the opportunity to put their best foot forward and make their case amid unparalleled attention.
“This World Cup feels different,” said Rapinoe, who played in her first in 2011. “We’re out of the dogged-fight phase. This Cup feels like a show-up-and-show-out vibe. It’s an opportunity to blow the lid off.”
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.