Ideally, this would be a story about the best saves of the group stage from the group stage of the 2019 World Cup. The field for this eighth run of the women’s tournament is deeper and more talented than ever, and there have already been a number of highlight-worthy stops to match. I would love to use this space to do the thing I have done here before, which is to look at some film of cartoonishly athletic people playing goalkeeper, and talk up the magic in the details of adults mastering a game.
As long as we are indulging that daydream, it might have led off with Christiane Endler. The Chilean keeper is a high-profile starter on Champions League contender PSG, and in two games Endler has already earned a Player of the Match award and racked up 11 saves, several of which were spectacular enough to land in Fox Soccer’s social media feed. She helped hold Sweden scoreless until the 83rd minute, brick-walled the USWNT’s Christen Press three times, and played well enough to convince Carli Lloyd to aim for surgical precision on a penalty kick that she then missed wide. My favorite work of Endler’s so far did not go down as an official save in the box score, though.
In a better, more exemplary world I would embed a video here to illustrate the moment; in the one that we occupy you will have to take my word for it. In the 37th minute of Endler’s first game, as best as I can recall and FIFA’s commentary documents, Swedish winger Fridolina Rolfö found a little space and burned down the sideline to the keeper’s right. Quick to read Rolfö’s intentions while registering another Swedish attacker, Stina Blackstenius, unmarked in front of the net, Endler realized she was on her own and cheated out aggressively off her line anticipating a cross. When the pass came in, Endler immediately charged at Blackstenius, closed the remaining distance, and laid out as the striker hurried to lift a shot over the sprawling keeper. It worked. In her haste, Blackstenius misfired high. This is the type of play that the best keepers will make to bolster their defense against a superior attack, but it’s also the sort that is easily overlooked, and so it didn’t find its way into any of Fox’s highlight packages.
The reason that I can’t show you a video of this sequence is that FIFA is notoriously draconian about enforcing the broadcast rights that it bestows in various geographies for truckloads of money. You may have noticed a conspicuous lack of video clips and GIFs of World Cup nutmegs and golazos on circulating around blogs and social media. This is a direct result of FIFA’s aggressively chilling take-down policies, which target anyone who shares even the briefest bits of game footage outside of FIFA-approved channels. To be clear, FIFA is a dizzyingly corrupt institution propped up by a series of only slightly less corrupt regional confederations. Whether or not allowing reasonable Fair Use is right, legal, or would be ultimately beneficial to the game and the players is much less important to them than clinging to power and control with an iron grip.
In the United States, FIFA sold the English language rights to Fox—at the top level, the same people responsible for the TV news feedback loop of poisoned reactionary mousse conveyed to and from our President’s spoiled brain. Fox then sells commercial time to giant companies like Volkswagen, so that they can assure us, over a Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack, that they are very sad that they got caught cheating emissions standards while the oceans are boiling, but but are going to make it up to us by designing a new van. This in turn allows people like Rupert Murdoch to continue to hoard billions of dollars and sabotage democracy worldwide, so that they he can go on hunting unicorns in a private preserve, or whatever it is people do when they have 20 billion dollars and no conscience.
Only a portion of those funds end up filtering down to the athletes on the field, or the populations in France who will feel the negative, sometimes crushing ramifications of hosting an event like this. This kind of exploitation is so commonplace as to be almost unremarkable, and when everything in the world has been commodified by someone with more capital, it’s easy to take for granted. The biggest, most joyous sporting events do not get excepted. When the Toronto Raptors won the NBA title, the team owners were the first ones to lift the trophy. Women’s sports are, obviously, subject to all these familiar forces, the minor caveat being that they are compounded by a few thousand years of patriarchal oppression.
Beyond lip service, FIFA has never shown any real interest in justice, or righting the gendered inequities of their century-plus history. The women in the 2019 tournament will be playing for 7.5 percent of the prize money that their male counterparts played for in 2018. As egregious as that number sounds, it barely scratches the surface of what the players in this tournament are facing.
Even if I could show you the nuances of Christiane Endler’s play it would not make much sense to do so without context. Beyond the fact that Sweden and the United States are ranked at No. 9 and No. 1 respectively in the FIFA rankings—officially a branded joint venture with gargantuan sugar water barons—there are good reasons why losing their first two games while holding their opponents to 0-2 and 0-3 score lines was an admirable result for Chile.
Chile’s women’s team received so little backing from their soccer federation that they did not play a single match for two consecutive calendar years. In 2016, they were dropped from the FIFA rankings due to inactivity. They continued to exist because the players, including Endler, organized to form a union. As detailed in this New York Times piece from Ayelén Pujol, the Asociación Nacional Jugadoras de Fútbol Femenino en Chile successfully pressured their federation for more support. They got games back on the schedule in 2017, convinced the federation to host the 2018 Copa América Feminina, to impressive crowds, and shockingly finished second in qualifying to lock down their first World Cup bid. That they even survived to play in this tournament is impressive; playing competitive games against two powerhouses is even more so.
Chile’s story is a travesty, but it’s one that’s shared to varying degrees by every women’s team in the world. The additional hurdles that female players are made to jump over to compete—the utter lack of funds, disinterest, outright hostility from many federations, and the broad disrespect they endure as a matter of course—are almost universal. It goes without saying that there are levels to this, but even for the world’s powerhouses, the landscape is hardly egalitarian.
The U.S. Women’s National Team is one of the most dominant forces in the history of the sport, and since its inception, has operated in one of the most favorable environments of any women’s team. This is tremendously relative, considering that they did not exist until 1985 and they’ve never been positioned on remotely equal footing to the far inferior U.S. men’s program. In March of this year, 28 members of the team filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer, not just over the disparities in pay but also over structural advantages that the men received. The French women’s team is a joint favorite with the U.S. to win the entire Cup. They’ve been in excellent form and have home-field advantage, with ecstatic crowds riding the wake of the men’s 2018 victory. Despite that, the French women were forced out of the Clairefontaine national training camp just days before the Cup started, in favor of the men’s team ahead of a meaningless friendly against Bolivia. Arguably the best player in the world, Ada Hegerberg, is still sitting out from playing for Norway, to protest what she feels is second-class treatment compared to the men.
These are the squads at the top of the food chain, and things get far worse as you work your way down the rankings. Argentina didn’t play a game in 2012 or 2013, and then again for another two-plus year gap from 2015-2017. Via Joshua Nadel and Brenda Elsey in the Guardian: “After failing to qualify for the 2015 World Cup in Canada, the Argentinian Football Association (AFA), showed little interest in having a national women’s side at all.” Again, the team only subsisted because the players banded together, took legal action, spoke up publicly, and eventually shamed their federation into better treatment.
With minimal institutional support, and after the team was completely dissolved from 2008 to 2014, Jamaica climbed to their first Women’s World Cup due largely to philanthropy and activism from Cedella Marley, among others. Thailand’s unlikely journey to their first Women’s World Cup might not have been possible had it not been personally financed and driven by Nualphan Lamsam, CEO of Muang Thai Insurance and fifth-generation member of the powerful Lamsam family.
And these are just the teams who actually qualified for the World Cup. Much was made over the U.S.’s 13-0 trouncing of Thailand in their opening match, but in all the moralizing about the grave sin of continuing to attack and celebrating goals, little time was spent considering the bigger picture. First, for all the systemic obstacles they have had to overcome, Thailand are a competitive team playing at the highest level, who themselves beat Cambodia and Malaysia 11-0 and 8-0 in qualifying, and seemed far less bothered than the people grandstanding. But more importantly, it’s worth examining the circumstances that fuel the competitive disparities that allowed a team like Thailand to get into the field.
Of the top 10 teams on the men’s half of the FIFA rankings, the women’s programs in four of those nations—Belgium, Portugal, Croatia, and Uruguay—have never received the institutional support to so much as qualify for a World Cup. The reason the women’s field of 24 teams has slots for five Asian teams (the last men’s 32-team field had only 4.5) is that in comparison to many traditional soccer powers, Japan, Australia, China, and both Korean programs have given their women’s sides at least a modicum of attention and assistance. There are plenty of countries with storied footballing histories and quality men’s teams that could put together very decent women’s rosters with minimal ramp-up time if they showed even a little interest in making that happen.
Sports are never as pure as so many fans and observers would like to pretend they are, but it’s always worldwide competitions like the World Cup that make the grime most visible. It’s only the work of the athletes themselves, those moments of sublime athletic prowess, that ever make the existence of the rotten structures built around them palatable. What’s remarkable about the women in this year’s World Cup is that they’ve managed to produce plenty of those moments despite those who are meant to support and nurture the game seemingly making every possible effort to destroy it. Christiane Endler and her teammates survived those efforts, and because of that we get to watch her make some stellar saves, regardless of the scoreline. She and everyone else on the field are giving a lot more than they’re getting back.