When the United States stampeded over Japan 5–2 on Sunday to claim the Women’s World Cup trophy for the third time, it was a victory 16 years in the making. The triumph was the first American title since 1999, and Carli Lloyd’s team is rightfully being heralded as the heirs to Brandi Chastain’s legendary championship side.
Unlike the team of Chastain, Mia Hamm, and Julie Foudy, though, this squad—and the rest of the teams at this tournament—did not have to endure the ever-present notion that they were mainly there as a novelty act or political symbol. The fact that the past four weeks have been a celebration of one of the most entertaining spectacles in sports is easy to take for granted. Unlike the past, the main thing now holding the sport back from becoming a global phenomenon closer to par with its male cousin is not a lack of quality competition or fan interest, but FIFA, the sport’s governing body, whose incompetence nearly sabotaged the 2015 World Cup in multiple profound ways—from the field, to the hotel rooms, to the draw.
Still, in spite of FIFA, it’s worth recognizing how far women’s soccer has come since the last U.S. championship. It’s difficult to remember today amid Lloyd’s unbelievable and record-breaking 16-minute hat trick and a game that matched the most goals scored in a final in men’s or women’s World Cup history, but a great deal of the media responded to the U.S. victory in Pasadena not as pure sport.
In the lead-up to that 1999 final, the New York Times devoted an entire story to a debate over whether the U.S. team had successfully blended “athleticism with a sexual presence.” David Letterman dedicated segments to scantily clad photos of the U.S. team in “Late Show” T-shirts with the caption “Soccer Mamas!” The Weekly Standard talked about how the “heart-pounding drama won by the American women on the very last kick, a magnificent victory by skillful, disciplined athletes,” was being ignored for questions of femininity in sports. This magazine, unfortunately, published a piece by Christopher Caldwell that argued “the women's sports craze is a fad [serving] a feminist political end, a fashion end, and a commercial end” and noting that “‘Brandi Chastain’ sounds like a name you'd see on the credits for a hardcore porn film.”
Even the now-iconic image of Chastain ripping off her jersey in celebration of clinching the American victory, which today we rightfully remember as an moment of spontaneous joy by an athlete celebrating the pinnacle of her career, was viewed as controversial (and possibly staged). Katie Couric asked Chastain on the Today show about “some of the mixed signals that little girls may be getting” from the image. Couric followed that up with a question to Foudy about a Sports Illustrated photo she had taken in a bikini.
All of that babble seems like ancient history, but it’s not. “We’re talking about them as athletes, rather than some of the conversations we had in ’99—‘My God, who are these women? They’re kind of hot!’ ” remembered Foudy, now a journalist and one of the sport’s most important analysts, in an interview with the New York Times after Sunday’s game.
Unlike 1999, as Foudy noted, the controversy surrounding this U.S. women’s national team was one over soccer strategy. In the early stages of the tournament, the U.S. women looked like anything but world beaters. Coach Jill Ellis’ tactics of stacking as many strikers as possible on the field and leaving Lloyd to play a less attacking role were roundly and rightfully criticized. But in the quarterfinals Ellis made necessary adjustments, pulling aging captain and all-time leading international goal scorer Abby Wambach from the starting lineup. In the next game, Ellis took things a step further, going to a five midfielder lineup that allowed Lloyd to take center stage in a natural attacking position. Lloyd scored her third goal of the tournament, and the Americans upset Germany 2–0 in the semifinals, dominating all facets of the game against the top-ranked team in the world.
The Americans followed up a total victory with the historic triumph over Japan. It only took three minutes for the Americans to get on the books in the final. It was a shocking start to the game, the kind that can throw contests off balance into a frenzy of goals—and it soon did. Lloyd scored her second two minutes later, and Lauren Holiday added an absolute scorcher of a volley less than 10 minutes after that. If that wasn’t enough, Lloyd capped off the hat trick with a goal from midfield that will be remembered as long as soccer is played. That 16-minute stretch to start the game put the match almost entirely out of reach and was reminiscent of some of the greatest performances the sport has ever seen.
“I would think we would have to be considered one of the best teams there ever was,” Rapinoe correctly noted after the game.
The U.S. legacy, and that of Lloyd, the tournament’s Golden Ball winner, will dominate the conversation around this team in the coming days, rather than questions of femininity and role models.
We didn’t get to this point overnight. As my colleague Josh Levin noted after the U.S. beat Japan in the Olympic final in 2012, the foundation was set by the exciting performances of this U.S. team at that Olympic tournament and in the previous World Cup. “Rather than addressing them as heroes and pioneers and role models, we now talk about the U.S. women like they’re any other athletes,” Levin wrote. “This is what the best sports look like—occasionally uplifting, often infuriating, and always worth watching.”
This Women’s World Cup had all of that. The expanded World Cup field—from 16 to 24 teams—demonstrated the increased quality of play all over the planet. It also allowed for newcomers to the Women’s World Cup from traditional men’s powers to make a name on the world stage. The Netherlands was the prime example of this with stunning goals and a dramatic last-minute equalizer, but cocky, upstart Colombia was another team that showed it is poised to delight fans for years to come. Even Germany’s opening 10–0 romp over Ivory Coast was incredibly fun to watch. And, as in all great sports, the drama extended to the tragic with Laura Bassett’s devastating last-minute own goal in the semifinals.
Aside from a couple of small outlying bloviators, the discussion of this World Cup was rarely derailed from where it belonged: on the pitch. The one problem was that on—and off—that pitch, FIFA still treated players—and fans—as second-class citizens. This was most apparent in the organization’s decision to play all games on turf fields, something that has never happened at the men’s event and inspired a since-abandoned lawsuit against the organization. But it was also apparent in FIFA’s skimping on everything from the prize money, which was a tiny fraction of that at the men’s tournament, to the hotels, which teams were forced to share with their opponents. The excuse that the lower popularity of the event compared with the men’s game—or, alternatively, the relative youth of the sport—necessitated miserliness is a poor one. FIFA has boasted that it would shatter previous attendance records with 1.2 million tickets sold. Sunday’s final, meanwhile, was viewed by an estimated more than 21 million people in the United States, breaking the American record of about 18 million viewers during the 1999 final. Both of these totals, by the way, are more than the highest-ever U.S. total for a men’s final (Sunday's final is also the highest ever viewership for a soccer game in the U.S.).* The average match viewership was strong as well, way up from 2011.
The only remaining pretext for FIFA's disparities is that the sport is just not accepted enough yet across Europe, but even that is wearing thin. While the game didn’t get the attention it deserved in England—with so-so ratings and programming that was consigned to BBC Three—the nation’s first-ever third-place showing and embrace of Laura Bassett shows that the country is poised to take the sport more seriously in four years when the event will be played in a more convenient time zone.
That tournament, which will be played in France—a nation that is beginning to fully embrace its sterling national team—offers the opportunity for FIFA to right the greatest injustice it perpetrated at this event, namely the draw. Allegedly in order to boost ratings and attendance, the organization jerry-rigged the draw so that the top-three teams in the world all ended up in the same half. This led to France, the most entertaining offensive team at this tournament (do yourself a favor and watch these goals), being forced to play Germany in the quarterfinals. Despite dominating, they lost the match on penalty kicks and were eliminated at an absurdly early stage. The lopsided draw also meant that Germany and the United States—Nos. 1 and 2 in the world, respectively—were made to face off in the semifinals. All of this was an utter debacle from a fan’s and from a player’s standpoint. It would never have stood in the men’s event and shows that, despite how far the women’s game has come, there are still man-made obstacles being placed in its way. With an expected restructuring of FIFA due to take place following the U.S. federal criminal probe against some of its top officials, here’s hoping that it won’t take another 16 years for the next round of basic equality to arrive for the women’s game.
Correction, July 6, 2015: Due to a photo provider error, a caption in this post initially misidentified Alex Morgan as Ali Krieger and Whitney Engen as Kelley O’Hara. This post also mistated that viewership for both the 1999 final and the 2015 final were more than the highest-ever total for any men's game. The 2015 final was, but the 1999 final viewership was slightly below that of last year's World Cup group phase match between the United States and Portugal.