In May I was at a bar in Portland, Ore., with two of my brothers, watching the U.S. women’s national soccer team play the first of a series of pre-World Cup tune-ups. At first, we were the only people there—it was Mother’s Day, around brunchtime. A little after halftime, an older couple sat down at the other end of the bar. They weren’t there for the game, but soon they were drawn in, perhaps because the three of us were shouting at the screen.
The man began to pepper me with questions about the game and the team. My eyes on the TV, I told him they were preparing for the World Cup that started in just a few weeks in Canada. When he asked how much tickets were, I said I’d bought a stadium pass for a little under 25 dollars per game.
“Why are they so cheap compared to tickets for the men’s World Cup?” he asked.
“I guess there’s just less interest,” I said.
“But they’re good?” he said.
“Oh yeah, they’re favorites to win,” I said. A few moments passed before he asked another question: “Why is the women’s team so good and the men’s team isn’t?”
I stumbled through something about America not really caring about soccer until recently, but it wasn’t the whole answer. Over the last month, which I largely spent attending World Cup games in Vancouver, I kept coming back to this guy’s question.
Before the U.S. played Nigeria on June 16th, I was standing in the beer line at BC Place with my best friend from childhood, giddy to be at the game, hoping for victory. We were behind two men, around our age, late 20s, one wearing full stars-and-stripes regalia. I asked why he was at the Women’s World Cup. Was he a women’s soccer fan? He didn’t follow much women’s soccer, he said, but he had been to Brazil last year, and loved it so much he wanted to recreate it.
“Brazil was like one big party,” he told me. “There were tons of 20- and 30-somethings there.” He paused, looking around at the crowded concourse 20 minutes before kickoff. Families with small children waited in line for food or hurried to their seats. He said the moment he realized this tournament would be different when his flight was full of middle-school girls and their parents. He sounded disappointed.
Last year, at 1:00 a.m. on the day the U.S. men’s national team would play Germany in the final game of the group stage matches of the World Cup in Brazil, I was wide awake lying on an uncomfortable bed. A group of singing, cheering Germans had arrived at the hostel and they seemed to be making no attempt to be quiet even though it was the middle of the night and the building was small. I desperately wanted to sleep. My alarm was set to go off early so my boyfriend and I could make our way to the stadium in time for the main event of our entire trip to Brazil: watching our home country play. But the German fans wanted to party, they wanted to celebrate before the game had even begun.
Throughout that trip, I felt as though I was living in some kind of paradox. I was an American traveling abroad in a developing country, which usually has me looking to blend in at all costs, and yet, because I was there as a soccer fan, I could convince myself I was David and not Goliath. I felt perfectly fine pairing my stars and stripes with a chip on my shoulder. The next morning, I swore to myself, we would show those Germans.
When we got to the stadium the next day our red, white, and blue clothing was soaked after a long trip by bus, subway, and shuttle through torrential downpour and flash flood. We celebrated surviving the journey by joining a group of American fans outside the gates drinking cheap Brazilian beer and swigging vodka from a bottle being passed around. Every time a U.S. fan came by we started a U-S-A! chant until they joined in. At some point, through my sodden, Brahma-dulled haze, I realized I was the only woman in the group of about 20.
This kind of ratio was familiar. Everywhere I’d been that week, at a restaurant or a bar to watch a game or at the stadium, men always significantly outnumbered women. We met many who were at the World Cup on father-son trips, group dudebro vacays, even men who were there on their own, diehard soccer fans from countries who weren’t even represented at that tournament. These men, from countries all over the world, were all friendly when we struck up conversations, but when the talk turned inevitably to soccer, they usually turned their heads toward my boyfriend. I was automatically excluded.
Just inside the stadium, I asked a man wearing an Irish flag if he’d be rooting for the U.S. No, he told me, probably not. “But we’re the underdogs!” I insisted.
“You’re the U.S.A.,” he told me. “You’ll be the best in a matter of time.”
But the U.S. men’s national team still has a long way to go. Brazil was the U.S. men’s tenth World Cup since the tournament began in 1930. Between 1950 and Paul Caligiuri’s rocket against Trinidad and Tobago that secured a spot in the 1990 tournament, the men’s team did not qualify at all. Their best finish in the modern era was eighth in 2002.
When the USWNT won the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991 (though at the time it was officially called the 1st FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup, sponsored by Mars, Inc.), the men’s national team was ranked 22nd in the world. The women won the World Cup again in 1999, and have finished every single tournament in the top three. The men are ranked 34th today.
So this summer, when I went to the World Cup, again, to cheer for Team U.S.A., again, I had to change my mindset, again. I was now, undeniably, back on Goliath’s side. Before leaving to see Canada play Switzerland in a knockout round match, I couldn’t decide whether to wear my U.S. Soccer shirt. I changed into a neutral grey at the last moment. “I don’t want to gloat,” I thought, returning to the American-abroad camouflage I was more comfortable with.
When we got to the fan zone outside the stadium in time to watch France play Korea on the big screens, though, almost everyone there who wasn’t wearing Canada gear was repping Team U.S.A. So much for not gloating, I thought. But seeing the mixed group, women and men of all ages, I was also proud of those fans who cared enough for our team to wear their colors even when we weren’t play that day—and to care enough about the sport itself to buy tickets to a game we weren’t playing in.
I also wondered where all the fans from traditional soccer superpowers were. Where were the annoying German fans? After all, their women’s team was ranked number one. Didn’t they want to party all night in someone’s hostel?
Several years ago, I spent a year abroad in Florence, trying desperately not to be recognized as an American. Once a week I volunteered at an afterschool program for kids from troubled homes. I worked with a group of mostly boys between 10 and 12 years old. We ate a snack together, and then worked on homework, and then we went outside and played. This being Italy, the snack was always delicious and we almost always played soccer.
On my first day, I joined the boys’ scrimmage on an abandoned tennis court. I hung back for the first few minutes, like a respectable adult does when trying not to seem eager about playing a game with children, but soon my offensive instincts, honed from 12 years of youth soccer, set in and I stole the ball from the boy who was hogging it, then launched it through the makeshift goal. “Che Forza!” They looked at me as though they had never seen a girl score before. Though Italy is known for its soccer prowess, their women’s team failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup.
A recent analysis by Public Radio International showed that the greatest predictor of a nation’s women’s soccer team’s success was gender equality—more than even the country’s GDP or overall interest in soccer. In Italy, I was constantly astounded by casual sexism, whether it was women wearing bikinis on every television program, or the incessant catcalling I experienced on the street just for walking while female. So it is not too surprising that for many there, it is hard to imagine women playing the same game as the men.
The thing about being a women’s soccer fan is that on some level, you’re never just rooting for your own team. Because every time a team underperforms, every time a team is sent home earlier than expected from a tournament, that’s an opponent that might not exist much longer. That’s a country that has a little more fuel on the fire of sexism that women athletes all over the world face.
When Brazil was knocked out of the tournament in an upset win by Australia, my heart broke for Marta and her teammates. In Brazil, a country mad for soccer—where you literally couldn’t get a cab during the World Cup if Brazil was playing a match while I was there—it was actually illegal for women to play from 1941 to 1979. Illegal.
This year, the Brazil soccer federation announced a historic $15 million investment in women’s soccer. But the sexism even their country’s top players face persists: the Brazilian coordinator for women’s football credited more interest of late in their women’s soccer team because the players are “putting on makeup,” and “getting more beautiful.”
After Brazil’s loss in the Round of 16, many questioned whether the federation would continue to invest in the program.
While packing my bag for the World Cup final this year, I had no qualms about wearing my U.S.A. gear for the entire weekend. At the match itself, I reveled in being able to look around the stadium and not feel outnumbered because of my gender. At halftime I debriefed with the woman next to me about what an incredible game Carli Lloyd was having, and how deftly Tobin Heath was handling the ball. After the final whistle, I rushed to the front of the stands to cheer on my team as they were awarded their third World Cup trophy, high-fiving and hugging the men standing next to me who’d decided the night before to get tickets, and paid more than triple face value for them, because, as they said, they just couldn’t miss this.
After the game I felt drained, physically and emotionally. I kept trying to process what I’d just seen and what I’d experienced over the last month. I thought about a little girl I had seen walking down the sidewalk before the final carrying a poster that read: “Hey FIFA: It’s Not About Being Beautiful, It’s About How you Play the Beautiful Game!” and about how the BC Place crowd had erupted out in boos when the FIFA officials, flanked by models in tiny dresses, took the stage to present the trophy.
It’s fun to root for the U.S. men’s national team because it feels like a declaration to the world that our country really does like soccer, and not just the sports we invented. But cheering on the U.S. women to their third World Cup win? That means much more. I think this is another part of the answer to the man’s question from the bar in Portland. Our men’s team isn’t as good as our women’s team because there is less at stake.
Our women play to be taken seriously, not just as soccer players or Americans, but as women, in a world where that’s still sometimes a hard thing to be. In the end, I didn’t mind that I was rooting for a superpower because in this game, that dominance is due in large part to gender equality successes in our country. Title IX enabled more women to play sports in school, and eventually professionally. That we field one of the best soccer teams in the world is something we can be genuinely proud, and that goes far beyond sports.
Winning is fun, but in the next Women’s World Cup I hope even more superpowers show up, with fan bases to match. I hope to be woken in the middle of the night at a French hostel by partying Italian fans. I hope things keeps getting more difficult for the U.S. women’s team because the gender equality bar is being raised everywhere else.
Maggie Mertens is a writer in Seattle who covers women’s issues, the millennial generation and other topics for various media outlets, including TheAtlantic.com, Glamour, and Pacific Standard. You can follow her on Twitter @maggiejmertens.