When it comes to gender-traditional social arrangements, the institution of sports is one of the prime examples where men’s participation in any particular discipline assumes a superlative role over women’s. Be it football or tennis or athletics, more often than not, the general consensus is for men to be prioritised over women, irrespective of whether it is at an individual level or a team sport.
As the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup inches closer, the conversation is revolving around how this year’s showpiece event could be a game changer for women’s football, especially with the likes of Jamaica and Cameroon making it to the World Cup, countries where women’s football is yet to capture the attention of the masses. However, the tournament in France will also feature some of the biggest names in women’s football — Alex Scott, Sam Kerr, Fran Kirby — footballers, also women, who have achieved more than some of their male counterparts could ever dream of.
One of the most intriguing juxtapositions when it comes to accomplishments in international football belongs to the men’s and women’s national teams of the United States — while the latter are the defending world champions, the former had failed to even qualify in the most recent FIFA World Cup. Yet, it is the US women’s national team which is currently embroiled in a long-drawn legal battle with the United States Soccer Federation over ‘equal pay to play’ — a sombre reflection of the social status women footballers in America are limited to, even after generating more commercial revenue than the men’s national team.
Football or soccer, the name by which the sport is identified on the other side of the Atlantic, also a term which draws a frown from traditional observers of the game, began to seize the mantle of the conversation in mid-1990s in the United States; long after the US Women’s National Team had already been crowned world champions in 1991. In fact, it wasn’t until the summer of 1999 when Brandi Chastain’s winning penalty and iconic celebrations as the '99ers' lifted the World Cup, forced the world to sit up and take notice of the success that the US Women’s National Team tasted on a consistent basis.
Perhaps most telling is Mia Hamm’s recollection of the US Women’s National Team’s exploits in 1999 and its consequent effect on the sport in the country. "I remember Anson Dorrance (the then-coach of the '99ers') always saying every time we stepped on the field (that) we were selling our game. We wanted to win and we wanted to win attractively," Hamm told CNN.
"Everything I did was to make us better and to make our sport better. But we also wanted to get into a street fight and stand toe-to-toe with the toughest to put the ball in the back of the net. All the things we really felt represent the American spirit, we wanted our team to represent," Hamm explained. And represent they did, not only drawing the attention of the general US public to the beautiful game, but inspiring the next generation of superstars.
And the amazingly talented, yet sublimely humble Hamm recognises that effect. "We had this sense of empowerment and purpose that enabled us to go out there and play freely," Hamm added, "We talked about enjoying not only where we were but the journey to get there."
Pioneers in the truest sense, the US Women’s National Team still continue to be the greatest flagbearers for women’s football — be it on the pitch or off it. While their fight against wage discrimination from their own football federation is symbolic in more than one way, considering the United States’ present socio-political scenarios, they are chasing a record-breaking second consecutive World Cup triumph in France this year, a feat achieved only by a brilliant yesteryear’s Brazil side in the men’s competition. The likes of Carli Lloyd and Alex Scott are no longer just revered for their skillset in the realms of their own continent, but act as role models for nascent footballers around the globe.
And it is all around the globe that women’s football has begun to hit its strides, a quiet phenomenon taking the collective by storm. If the United States are the front-runners in France, their arch-rivals and the losing finalists of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, Japan, are not too many steps behind. The 2011 champions have an eclectic mix of young talents and experienced campaigners in its squad and are expected to once again put up a strong display this summer.
Asia, a cauldron of individual talents, has often seen its men’s national teams struggle on the grandest stages of them all, with the likes of South Korea and Japan being the occasional exceptions. Even then, the plaudits of Japan Women’s National Team trounce all their progress. In a continent where young boys are more inclined to kick a ball while the girls are often prejudiced against, especially when it comes to a team sport, Japan has scaled peaks and then some more. Their 2011 triumph, mere months after the Fukushima disaster, was nothing short of an enigma which rekindled hope in a country battered by a terrible natural disaster. While 2015 might have been disappointing, it has only managed to spur the reigning Asian champions to once again establish their dominance.
With more and more young Japanese girls not just from the prime cities but also the suburbs choosing to pursue football as a sincere option, the 'Nadeshiko' are building on their foundations at an exceptional rate. From an analytical perspective, the Japan men’s team is still at least a couple of decades away from capturing the glory the women’s team has already achieved.
If history is any indication, both these nations will break more barriers this summer, attaining newer zeniths — producing magical moments which not only promote women in football and champion their constant struggles to prove their relevance in this sport still plagued by misogyny, but also uplift the standards of the beautiful game.
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Updated Date: Jun 04, 2019 21:42:55 IST