On Tuesday night in France, the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) made its long-awaited 2019 World Cup debut, and wasted no time making a statement. The defending champions thrashed Thailand 13-0 — a historically large margin — in the final game of the first round of group play.
As the rout continued, the game got increasingly difficult to watch. As thrilling as each goal was for USWNT fans; as moving as it was to see the team’s exuberance each and every time the ball crossed the goal line; it was impossible not to feel for the Thai players, who were overmatched in every way, and seemed to get more helpless as the minutes ticked by.
The lopsided score launched a litany of conversations, which are still raging nearly 24 hours later, about sportsmanship, excessive celebrations, sexism, equal pay, and the lack of investment in women’s soccer globally. It’s clear that this USWNT performance — which was led by a World Cup record five goals by Alex Morgan — has gotten under people’s skin.
But rather than trying to debate our way around the discomfort, perhaps it would be best to stew in it for a minute. Because the discomfort might just be the point.
It should make us uncomfortable that the inequities in women’s soccer are so massive, that it’s not yet possible to have the field of a 24-team World Cup be competitive from top to bottom. It should make us queasy that many soccer federations don’t even convene training camps for women athletes, let alone arrange official friendly matches against quality opponents to enable those teams to build their ranking and develop their homegrown talent. And it should make us furious that FIFA has failed, time and time again, to both require federations to spend more than 15% of its funds from FIFA on women’s football, and to hold them accountable when they fail to meet even that minimal mark.
It should turn our stomachs that Team USA, the most successful women’s soccer team in the world, is still having to fight for equal pay. The players are currently suing U.S. Soccer for gender discrimination, alleging that, “Despite the fact that [U.S.] female and male players are called upon to perform the same job responsibilities on their teams and participate in international competitions for their single common employer, the U.S. Soccer Federation, the female players have been consistently paid less money than their male counterparts.”
It should make us squirm that the female players decided to take on such a big-time lawsuit right before the biggest tournament of their lives — something many would consider a distraction — because they knew that this is the only time in the next four years that they will receive this much attention. They need every ounce of leverage that they can muster, since U.S. Soccer is so hesitant to endorse equality. The U.S. women believe they must win the tournament to advance this larger cause. Because of that self-imposed burden, every match, every goal at the 2019 Women’s World Cup, takes on a heightened significance.
“They need a result, really, if they want this lawsuit to go well or at least to max out the potential that it has,” Meg Linehan, soccer writer for The Athletic, told ThinkProgress. “If they don’t come home with the trophy, it makes their position a little bit harder. And this is definitely the toughest World Cup that we’ve seen on the women’s side.”
People should be embarrassed reflecting on the demolition of Thailand, not because of how enthusiastically World Cup debutantes Mallory Pugh and Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis celebrated the first World Cup goals of their careers, but because for most casual fans, this was the first introduction to Pugh and Lavelle and Mewis, stars who play in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), a U.S.-based professional women’s soccer league that gets next to no attention from mainstream media.
It should make people ashamed that we give professional female athletes so few resources and coverage, that when they do get on the World Cup stage, they are literally playing for their livelihoods, for a moment in the spotlight, for a chance to be seen.
It is okay to be uncomfortable watching Megan Rapinoe run, slide, and leap into her teammates’ arms when she scores the ninth goal of the match in the 79th minute. It was extra and unapologetic and self indulgent, a sharp contrast to the image of female athletes that is often marketed to the masses — in which these women are saintly and humble inspirational figures, holding hands with children and presenting their athleticism in feminine, controlled ways.
The truth is, it takes an inordinate amount of selfishness and fire and defiance to become an elite female athlete. That’s part of the deal. It’s important for us see that, too.
When she scored the 13th goal in the 92nd minute, Carli Lloyd wasn’t concerned about the feelings of the Thai goalkeeper. No, the 2015 Women’s World Cup Golden Ball recipient wanted to prove to everyone that even though she’s no longer a starter, even though she’s older and is coming off the bench, that she hasn’t lost a step; that she’s still a force of nature.
It’s understandable why some might want a more muted celebration from a 13th goal; at that point, the game felt more like a massacre. But there’s also something refreshing about seeing women’s emotions in such a pure, unfiltered state, and seeing how much every single goal meant to these women, who have dedicated their lives to this sport, and still have to fight for so much every time they take the field. Plus, it’s worth noting, Lloyd sought out the Thai goalkeeper and comforted her after the match.
Ultimately, the USWNT had one chance to make a first impression at this Women’s World Cup, and they made the most of it. If it made people uneasy along the way, that might not be such a bad thing.
These women are not at the World Cup to instill a sense of comfort in those for whom nothing is at stake; they’re there to become champions, provoke change, and convince people to care about women’s soccer. There’s a long way to go in this tournament, but based upon how quickly they’ve provoked discussion, they’re right on target.