It has been impossible to ignore the US Women’s National Team in this World Cup, but so too impossible not to admire them.
When many teams would have soaked up the adulation and reveled in winning the biggest prize in women’s football, the USWNT regarded the aftermath of victory as the perfect platform to drive their fight for equality further forward.
Almost immediately after beating the Netherlands 2-0 in the Women’s World Cup final in Lyon, the players issued a statement which brought their battle for equal pay with the US Soccer Federation to the forefront of the conversation once again.
“At this moment of tremendous pride for America, the sad equation remains all too clear, and Americans won’t stand for it anymore. These athletes generate more revenue and garner higher TV ratings but get paid less simply because they are women,” said Molly Levinson, spokeswoman for the USWNT players in their equal pay lawsuit.
“It is time for the Federation to correct this disparity once and for all.”
It was an act which arguably emphasized that not only was this World Cup win a victory for the US, but for everyone striving for equality and social justice too. The Netherlands, of course, will perhaps think differently as they lick their wounds.
Dominant team and leading voice
If the USWNT is the dominant team in the women’s game – a ruthless accumulator of World Cup titles like no other in the competition’s history – it is also its leading voice.
Becoming world champion for the second successive time in a tournament FIFA president Gianni Infantino has described as the “best Women’s World Cup ever” will increase the influence of a confident group of players who, despite all their achievements, are still fighting for recompense.
It was not by accident that it was on International Women’s Day that the squad announced they were taking legal action against their own federation over alleged “institutional gender discrimination.”
There will be mediation, it has been reported, after this tournament but the statement issued on the final whistle in Lyon shows how determined the players are to achieve their aims.
The sound of the thousands of USWNT supporters, in France in numbers over the last month, repeatedly bellowing “equal pay” when their team had just won also suggests the players have plenty of backing.
When Infantino appeared on the pitch at the Groupama Stadium, a chorus of boos rippled around the arena as the majority of the 57,900 spectators made their feelings known about the football administrator.
‘Champions for equality’
On the pitch this team is clinical. It has swagger and belief. It has been accused of arrogance. But these athletes are willing to fight for social justice just as fiercely as they do to win matches.
Tweeting before the team’s savage 13-0 win over Thailand, former US President Barack Obama described the USWNT as “champions for equality, on and off the field.”
Megan Rapinoe, the US captain who has previously called herself as a “walking protest,” told CNN earlier this year that the team is happy to “clear the path as much as we can” for female footballers in other countries in the fight for gender equality.
Facing a room full of reporters Sunday, Rapinoe – a player described by her coach Jill Ellis as the kind of spokesperson that the game needs – again not only spoke for herself and her teammates, but for all footballers who had competed in France these last few weeks.
“I think everyone is ready for this conversation to move to the next step,” she said when asked about her reaction to the crowd’s booing.
“I think we’re done with ‘are we worth it, should we have equal pay, is the market the same, yadda, yadda.’ Fans are done with that, players are done with that. In a lot of ways, I think sponsors and everyone’s done with that.
“Let’s get to the next point – how do we support women’s federations and women’s programs around the world? What can FIFA do, what can we do to support the leagues around the world?
“We put on as all players, every player at this World Cup, put on the most incredible show that you can ever ask for and we can’t do anything more to impress more, to be better ambassadors, to take on more, to play better.
“It’s time to move that conversation forward to the next step and a little public shame never hurt anybody, right. I’m down with the boos.”
A lasting change?
Rapinoe was one of five players whose names were on a lawsuit filed against US soccer’s governing body in 2016 alleging wage discrimination, which led to a new collective bargaining agreement.
It was a fight that inspired other sportswomen: Canada’s soccer team reportedly sought advice on how to get maternity coverage into contracts, and the US hockey team asked the USWNT for help.
Around the world, women’s teams found their voices after the USWNT had stepped forward. Nigeria’s soccer players held a sit-in at their hotel to demand unpaid salaries, Ireland’s female footballers threatened to strike, Australia did so, and Norway signed an equal pay agreement in 2017.
The US has seen off the best teams in the world in France. In England and France, it has beaten the sides ranked No.3 and No.4 respectively and, to secure its country’s fourth world title, swept aside the Netherlands, the European champion.
Unbeaten in 17 World Cup matches, this USWNT side is undoubtedly the finest of its generation. A hegemony is not good for any sport, admittedly, but what this tournament has shown is that the USWNT is being rapidly pursued by European countries whose men’s national teams have long since been a force.
Seven of the quarterfinalists in France were European and federations and clubs in France, England and the Netherlands, for instance, are investing heavily in the game.
Though it is the USWNT which reigned supreme at the conclusion of this 52-match tournament, one day the dynasty will end, which is why its team of campaigners should be admired for speaking for the many in a fight which could lead to lasting change.