The hand wringing begins two-thirds of the way through the group stage of the Women’s World Cup. The writing on the wall appears as several teams secure a Round of 16 spot after just two of the three games, while others strive for just one goal, just one point to take home. It intensifies through the next round, as teams start to face one-off, do-or-die games. As the competitors dwindle and we wade deeper into the tournament, a different thought begins to consume many fans — will this be enough?
Every four years, teams get a chance at global exposure. International media outlets are present, games are actually being broadcast regularly on TV with professional production values, and fans are, in fact, watching. And every four years, those who get excited over women’s soccer during the other three years fret over the future — will this performance be enough for struggling teams to continue receiving support from their federations? Will failure be the confirmation a federation needs to reduce or stop funding the sport altogether? When the world is no longer looking, what will happen to smaller nations? For bigger teams, the ones in serious contention for the title, will anything less than the trophy result in scoffing I-knew-its; will disappointment lead to reduced leverage at the bargaining table of equality?
It’s a legitimate fear for many teams. Look at Chile, whose federation effectively disbanded the team before the women took it upon themselves to put together a bid for the Copa América Femenina in 2018 so they could qualify for the World Cup. Look at Nigeria, having to protest with sit-ins to receive their World Cup per diems and back pay from two years ago. Look at Marta, forgoing a boot sponsor to play with a gender equality flag on her boots, then tearfully pleading for girls in Brazil to keep the dream alive, because this may be the end of a golden generation of talent that has had to struggle constantly for respect and support.
Success is a double-edged sword too; the pressure to win it all is enormous for the United States. And with every aspect of their game politicized simply by the nature of being women playing sports, it’s hard not to fear that failure on the world stage will be taken as a referendum on the program as a whole. It’s never just losing a game; it’s proving the naysayers were right all along. It’s not just being knocked out over one result; it’s a moral judgment on women whose success has given them a platform to talk about social issues that matter to them, from sexism to racism to homophobia.
There’s an edge of desperation, sometimes, when women’s soccer fans discuss their hopes for the future. After all the talk and hype and narratives about dreams and inspiration, what happens if the reality falls short? After all, the marketing of women’s soccer is often reduced almost entirely to a “cause”, positioning players as role models and inspirational characters overcoming adversity — think Nike’s dream campaign, or Powerade’s making a champion spot, or Visa’s one moment commercial. There is certainly room for that, and there’s no denying these commercials are extremely good — several tears may have been shed while watching them — and many of these players simply are inspirational role models. And when your sport struggles against sexist assumptions about female athletes, part of its advertising will naturally push back against that. But to frame them exclusively within that lens is dangerous, because the moment they step outside of the role people expect them to model, or they become less than inspirational, they’re left floundering for an identity in the cultural consciousness. Sponsors don’t know how to approach their marketing; TV pundits don’t know how to talk about them; new or casual fans only hear about them in the context of disappointment, rather than getting to know them fully realized human beings who experience highs and lows.
Women’s success, no matter the team, can be a platform for vaulting the game to new levels of exposure and support. Italy went deeper into the tournament than expected — will this now result in the full professionalization of the Serie A women’s league, as the country realizes a broader base of support for the player pool and tougher competition through parity could yield even better results in 2023? Will more owners and sponsors invest in Spain’s Primera Division? On the flipside, it stinks that the women must show what they can do with extremely limited resources as a kind of “proof-of-concept” before anyone is willing to buy in. Making support contingent on overperforming — when compared to their underfunded squads — means failure can have ramifications that ripple through a program for years at every level.
The women at the World Cup aren’t just fighting for a trophy, but for their continued ability to play the game, and it shouldn’t have to be that way. Failure in this tournament shouldn’t be seen as a reason to stop supporting a team, but rather as a sign that their current support isn’t adequate. Getting knocked out should trigger why-or-why-not questions: Were the tactics inadequate? Were the players performing to the best of their ability? Was there enough talent in the squad?
Failure shouldn’t be considered a reflection on a team or a sport as a whole. It’s inevitable, to a certain extent, that when a team takes root in the zeitgeist they’ll then be judged at a cultural and not a sporting level. People — particularly sportswriters! — like to be able to extract meaning from wins and losses, to make sense of the emotional narratives constructed around a team or a player. But it’s also essential women be allowed to lose without having to be afraid for their livelihoods, or the future of their programs, or their sport as a whole.
For the sake of players and fans everywhere, the day when a loss is just a loss, and not something that carries much deeper implications for women’s soccer, can’t come soon enough.