REIMS, France — The floodlights of the Stade Auguste-Delaune in Reims stab sharply into the sky, four enormous pylons tapering to needle points at each corner of the stadium. It was a dramatic backdrop to the last group stage game to kick off in France, the reigning World Cup champions, the United States, against Group F minnows Thailand. No one expected a close scoreline.
But few predicted it would go so far off the rails, either, as the US racked up 13 goals in 90 minutes. The damage was spread across seven goalscorers, five of the goals by Alex Morgan, with tournament debut goals by Sam Mewis, Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, and Mal Pugh. And every time the ball went in the net, the Americans came together and cheered, their goal celebrations ranging from pedestrian arm raises to Megan Rapinoe’s 720-to-sliding-leg-kick in front of the USWNT bench.
Fans and media everywhere had opinions about how the USWNT chose to celebrate. One set suggest that the players were being tasteless in the context of Thailand’s much more modest resources. Others said these players had every right to celebrate a World Cup goal no matter the opponent — that the celebrations weren’t about Thailand at all, but about their own internal team mindset, part of a psychological bubble to maintain focus. And then there was a third set that wondered why the USWNT, after showing they were capable of such a dominant performance, still hasn’t been getting paid like the men, who haven’t exactly wowed on the world stage of late.
The US players went to the Thai players immediately after the final whistle, drawing them aside to give them words of encouragement. Alex Morgan told fellow Cal-Berkeley player Miranda Nild that it was only Game 1 of the World Cup, and encouraged her to look ahead for more chances to showcase herself. Carli Lloyd told Thai goalkeeper Sukanya Chor Charoenying that she had some good saves, and to hold her head high and keep fighting. Yet the Americans were unapologetic in the post-game mixed zone and press conference, explaining that they didn’t want to condescend to Thailand by playing down a level, or to step out of their score-at-all-costs tournament mentality for the sake of their opponents.
But no matter how you feel about USWNT’s blowout win — and the players certainly made their stance known — there can be no criticism of the team without asking why a score like 13-0 in a World Cup game is possible in the first place. All of the discussion of the “right” way to beat an overmatched opponent ignores the fact that if circumstances were more equitable, and both teams could say they had the necessary resources and support to compete on a world stage, then the blowout might not have happened.
And in that sense, ire for Tuesday’s result should be aimed elsewhere: at national organizations, continental federations, and FIFA for not doing more for the women they represent.
Part of the problem is the World Cup’s expansion to 24 teams in 2015. The Asian Football Confederation got five slots in the tournament that year, and Thailand qualified as the fifth team, slipping into the spot that many assumed would be taken by a more competitive North Korean team. But North Korea was banned from the 2015 World Cup because several of its players testing positive for steroids in 2011. They then failed to get out of the qualifying stages for 2019.
With any tournament expansion, newcomers understandably tend to struggle, having never dealt with the speed and pressure of the World Cup. The solution to poor competitiveness isn’t fewer teams, however. In fact, more teams might contribute to the solution in the long run, as Alex Morgan explained after the game.
“I hope that we expand to 32 and keep it at that number,” Morgan said. “I think that will incentivize federations to put more financial efforts into their women’s program and I hope we continue to see the development of women’s programs within their respective federations around the world.”
But simply appearing at the World Cup isn’t enough to keep federations interested in women’s teams. The have to receive tangible rewards, like more money and bigger slices of that financial pie. FIFA has to offer better compensation to clubs so that players have more freedom to train with their national teams, and more prize money overall.
Morgan gave a curt, sarcastic shrug when asked whether more prize money could be part of the incentivization of women’s soccer. “Can’t hurt,” she said, her previous criticism of the gap in prize money for men and women lingering in her tone. Later, in her press conference, she reiterated that she wants FIFA to put more pressure on federations to develop their women’s teams.
Megan Rapinoe agreed that FIFA could do more, like telling federations that their women’s teams must meet certain standards.
“I’m sure that they can mandate that in some way,” Rapinoe said. “It’s like, you don’t get money for anything else until you give more money to the women and make sure it’s fully staffed. I think there’s some teams here that since last World Cup have only played a handful of games, or only the qualifiers. It’s embarrassing, not only for the federations — obviously it’s embarrassing for the federations — but for FIFA as well. You just mandate it. They mandate all kinds of things.”
A mandate could protect developing teams from federations looking for any excuse to cut support for women, which is why pointing at 13 goals as an argument why the US women deserve equal pay is a non-starter. It raises the sort of questions that federations can use to suppress funding — i.e., would the Thailand WNT then not deserve any investment for such a poor showing? Tying equitable treatment to always having to perform at the highest possible level creates an impossible scenario. As the women underperform, the federation has an excuse to stop supporting them, when in fact a bad team is a signal that the federation needs to invest more, whether it’s money or time.
There are massive institutional inequalities within soccer that are beyond the purview of the 22 players on the field and have to be addressed globally, and thus through FIFA. The Football Association of Thailand does not have the same budget or resources as US Soccer — just look at the Thailand men’s team, currently ranked 114th in the world, and its domestic league, which is a mess. So even if they were to equitably share resources between women’s and men’s teams, that would only get them so far.
And it’s worth noting that the Thailand WNT is fortunate to have a strong benefactor and general manager in businesswoman Nualphan Lamsam, CEO of Muang Thai Insurance. But wealthy though Lamsam may be, and for as much as she has contributed to making Thailand a World Cup team, even she likely finds it hard to go dollar for dollar with an entire national organization dedicated to the development of a sport (and the sale of tickets, sponsorships, and merchandise) for millions of players.
It’s not just money; the attitudes towards women in soccer in Thailand aren’t globally competitive either. In this Jere Longman article for the New York Times, Nild described a coaching atmosphere that treats the women as dainty and assumes that they require significant emotional handholding, an extension of existing social attitudes towards women in sports.
In all of these areas, FIFA could provide more of a guiding hand. FIFA does have women’s development programs, which include coaching courses and a female leadership program as part of its 2015-2018 women’s football development. But introducing a couple of new women at the executive level every couple of years isn’t enough.
When Morgan criticized FIFA’s paltry increase in women’s prize money, she also pointed out that the issues she was talking about were the same issues her USWNT predecessors talked about 20 years ago. Change is often slow, but it doesn’t have to be. People with power can decide that change can and should happen, and then do the legwork to implement that new vision.
FIFA doesn’t need to wait for social attitudes to change, or for players to somehow demonstrate on their own that they’re ready for more. It shouldn’t take another 20 years for the Thailands of women’s soccer to have fit, tactically aware teams that can, at the very least, not get blown out of the water by double digits.
It’d be nice if 20 years from now we could be talking about something else.