By Grace Masback
WANT Original Content
Like many girls and young women, soccer was a part of both my childhood and adolescence. When I was in elementary school, I played soccer for fun, scoring goals and making tackles for our undefeated team, affectionately known as the “Funky Monkeys.” Later, when I moved overseas to Amsterdam, I played soccer on the streets with my Dutch counterparts and for a local club. Upon my return to the United States, I tried out and made a classic team and traveled around the Pacific Northwest for matches and tournaments.
I loved my teams and teammates and I loved the hard work and spirit it engendered, but the “beautiful game” was never all that beautiful for me. Once I got to high school, I gave up soccer for cross country.
Oddly, I never stopped paying attention to soccer. My dad and brother have been and still are obsessed with “football,” as they like to call it, and I continue to have profound soccer experiences. I saw Arsenal play at the Emirates, I saw Ajax win its first Eredivisie title in 10 years, I met and chatted with Didier Drogba, Theo Walcott, Frank Lampard and others, I lived in Amsterdam the year the Dutch almost took the World Cup, and I attended a U.S. national team game versus Canada.
All of these events were memorable, some even awe inspiring, but though I respect male soccer players, the women of the U.S. National team are my true inspiration. Yes, they are great athletes, but they represent much more:
(1) They are role models. They come from all different walks of lives and socio-economic backgrounds, but their strength, drive, and dignity set an important standard for female empowerment;
(2) They epitomize diversity. They are black and white, straight and gay, tall and short, shy and extroverted, but are all dedicated to being the best they can be as individuals and as team members regardless of the differences in how they look and who they love. So often in sports athletes are afraid to share their true selves with the world, worrying that they will lose fan support or sponsorships. The U.S. Women’s NT members are happy with who they are, and aren’t shy about it;
(3) They are a team. Numerous men’s World Cup teams are squads of individuals who never make it as a team. The Dutch national team typifies this scenario. Arjen Robben only passes the ball reluctantly to Robin Van Persie, preventing much needed goals from manifesting themselves. That doesn’t happen on the U.S. Women’s NT. They operate with the ethos that if the group does well, they will be victorious as individuals;
(4) They have always stood for something. When I was younger, I remember reading about the NT that won the 1996 Olympics, led by the legendary Mia Hamm. They had a deal with U.S. Soccer that paid bonuses for performances at World Cups and Olympics. After the team lost in the semi-finals of the 1995 World Cup (they finished in 3rd), U.S. Soccer said that they wouldn’t honor the promise to pay bonuses for Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals at the 1996 games, stating, “We’ll only pay bonuses if you win. We don’t pay bonuses to losers.” Insulted, the women stuck together and threatened not to play unless they had a promise that the contract would be honored. Powerful female sports figures rallied to their side, forcing U.S. Soccer to capitulate and agree honor the contract. The team went on to win the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, adding a happily ironic twist to the controversy. More recently, prior to this year’s World Cup, Abby Wambach and other players attacked FIFA for mandating that the Women¹s World Cup be played on artificial turf. The players cited the increase in injuries and extreme heat that comes from artificial turf and threatened legal action. While their movement failed, it garnered widespread media attention as these women stood up for what was right. Their protest highlighted the fact that the men’s World Cup would never be played artificial turf – only perfectly manicured grass.
(5) They earned their popularity. In the 1990s, when few cared about or followed women’s soccer, the team would stay after games and sign autographs for the several hundred fans in attendance. Over time, the hundreds became thousands, but the team’s spirit and willingness to connect with fans never changed. They remained engaged, building their supporters from a handful to millions, and motivating legions of young girls to pick up the game. The popularity of today’s team is the fruit of that original team’s labors.
Looking ahead to Sunday, the U.S. women have a chance to make history, and bring home a major soccer championship title for the United States – something only the women’s national team has ever done. If they are victorious, they will become the heroes of millions of young girls and women around the nation and the world. Yet, for many, like me, they are already heroes, role models, and aspirational figures. No matter what the final score on Sunday, the U.S. Women’s NT is already a group of winners.