Kristine Lilly interview: Football legend on secret of US' success, her first salary of $10 a day for playing for the USWNT and more

  • Footballer Kristine Lilly was part of the US Women National Team for 23 years.

  • Lilly was part of two World Cup and two Olympic gold medal winning US teams.

  • Lilly was in India for the emblem launch of the FIFA U17 Women World Cup in 2020.

Kristine Lilly was still in high school when she first broke into the US Women’s National Team. Her first contract saw her making $10 a day. Women’s football in the US has come a long way since those early days, with the US national team players dragging US Soccer to court for equal pay as the men’s team.

 Kristine Lilly interview: Football legend on secret of US success, her first salary of  a day for playing for the USWNT and more

File image of USA Women's national Team footballer Kristine Lilly. AFP

Lilly’s 23-year career was marked with several highs, most notably two World Cup titles and two Olympic gold medals. But what is more remarkable is that in Lilly’s career, no USWNT that she was a part of finished lower than third in a major competition. But while successive US Women’s National Teams have done exceedingly well, the state of women’s football in the United States was always shaky.

The first two professional leagues for women ― Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) or Women’s Professional Soccer (WFS) ― folded up in three seasons each due to a variety of reasons. Their successor, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), just ended another season with record attendances in many stadiums and is expected to add more expansion teams in the coming seasons to the existing nine.

In India for the official emblem launch for the FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup next year, Lilly sat with Firstpost to talk about the secret of USWNT, the disparity of USWNT’s success with the success of the domestic league at home, her experiences while playing the game and more. Excerpts:

What was the secret of success for the US Women’s National Teams you played for?

We had a lot of talented players. Soccer wasn’t very big for women in the 80s. There were a bunch of women who had played with boys growing up, that’s what I did. Then when we joined the national team we were a bunch of women who were like-minded, strong and wanted to be the best. When I joined the US team, that was our mentality. We were like, ‘hey we have a chance to play soccer, let’s do it.’ We didn’t have any vision of being in the World Cup or the Olympics cause it didn’t exist then. So we were playing and we were enjoying what we do Anyone who loves the game and steps onto the football field comes to life, similarly we would come to life. Our mentality was to try and be the best we could be as a team. And then we had the first-ever Women’s World Cup in 1991 which we won. We said, ‘winning’s fun! This is good let’s keep making it happen.’ That’s what we wanted to do, keep winning.

Could you explain the disparity in terms of women’s football in USA? The USWNT had won the 1991 and 1999 World Cup titles, not to mention two Olympic golds. But women’s football leagues ― be it the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) or Women’s Professional Soccer (WFS) ― never took off and ceased to exist after three years due to myriad reasons.

I think it was also due to society. I think what we see now, especially in the United States and what’s spreading throughout the world, is that women are getting the support. It’s not an odd thing that women are playing football. In these first two leagues, we had the financial dollars backing it, but it didn’t necessarily have the people backing it. You see how now the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is getting more and more fans to the stadiums each season. Cities like Portland are getting record attendances. So you see how society is there for it now.

You were in high school when you first broke into the US Women’s National Team. Could you talk about the disparity back then between men’s and women’s football? I think you mentioned how you were making $10 dollars a day to play for the US team, buying your own food after training sessions and having to travel in the middle seats in airplanes.

It was a different time. We didn’t have the full support. US Soccer weren’t backing the USWNT like they are now. And then there was the first-ever Women’s World Cup in 1991. We were playing for the US team because we thought it was a wonderful opportunity for us to play for the national team. When I was getting $10 a day, I must have been 17-18 years old, I thought to myself ‘this is great!’ I wasn’t getting anything before! I was just…I wouldn’t say naïve…but new and growing! We came into the team and grew with the game. We were part of that push. When I look back at it, I wouldn’t change anything. Maybe get a couple of more bucks here and there. But it was a really special time and to be there from the start of the game in the USA and to see at what level it’s progressed there is crazy.

How have things grown from back when you first started playing football for the USWNT to now for women’s football in USA?

When I was playing, I was playing with Mia Hamm, who’s the face of women’s soccer in the USA and also worldwide. Now you have Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Abby Wambach who are household names being used throughout our country. It’s great, but it’s also because of the success of the US Women’s National Team and also social media which has increased the coverage of teams and World Cups. Society is growing and is bringing women’s football into the light. My young girls look up to this team. They love Morgan, Rapinoe, Rose Lavelle. So these girls are setting an example of how to be excellent football players, being professional and fighting for what you believe in.

What more needs to be done back home in USA to popularise the women’s game?

If we knew that… (laughs) I think the TV coverage is a big part of it. The league has just signed a new TV deal which is going to help. If you’re on TV, it means you’re important. That’s the kind of mentality. It’s really hard in the US because our pro-leagues are from March to September. During the summer people travel, take vacations, that really affects the attendance. But if we can start to build the league just the American football guys have, games on every Sunday. I think that’s a part of being a big league. People have got to remember the NWSL is still young, and the game’s young on the women’s side. You cannot compare it to the men’s side, because we’re at a different level.

Updated Date: Nov 03, 2019 21:59:02 IST