The Wider Conversation
Can we talk about women's football without talking about talking about women's football?
You can have a conversation about women’s football, but then inevitably there comes a conversation about the conversation. That’s not the fault of women’s football as such: it’s the fault of a society that values outrage over debate, of bigots who engender understandable defensiveness and of a developing sport in which journalists find themselves treading an uneasy line between analysis and promotion. But it does make talking about women’s football exhausting.
Let’s begin with the champions. The USA were, far and away, the best side and fully deserved their fourth title. It was a little baffling that in each of the knockout rounds before the final they took a lead and then chose to sit on it, which on all three occasions left them under needless pressure late on, but the sense always was that if they’d needed to, given they seemed physically stronger and fitter than their opponents, they could quickly have re-established their advantage.
They were accused in some quarters of arrogance, a charge that it’s worth unpacking. A lot of successful sides are accused of arrogance. In many cases it’s true, at least to the extent that a self- confidence that might feel uncomfortable in everyday life seems beneficial in athletes. To that extent, it’s a non-issue.
Much of the criticism directed at Megan Rapinoe after the final was ludicrous, fairly clearly based on the fact that as a gay woman and outspoken critic of Donald Trump she riled a certain section of society. The silliness reached its peak with a video circulated of her being distracted while signing an autograph; if that is evidence of malignancy of character then I should confess that it’s probable that I too, despite signing many thousands of times fewer items than Rapinoe, may on occasion have glanced away while doing so.
But there were two specific moments at which the supposed arrogance crystallised into a major talking point. The first came in the US’s first match, when they beat Thailand 13-0, and enthusiastically celebrated each goal which some found distasteful. To an extent this is subjective, but my own feeling is that if it’s a World Cup, a team should play hard. Bang in as many goals as you can, set records, make sure goal difference can’t become an issue. The celebrations I found a little odd – how excited, really, can you be by goal 13? – but it’s a goal at a World Cup: enjoy it, fine.
What was more telling was that conversation about the conversation. First off many male pundits who expressed unease about the continued celebrations were accused of gendered criticism, of them seeking to control the behaviour of women, or of feeling undue sympathy for Thailand’s players through some patronising sense that women must be protected. Perhaps for a proportion of them that was to an extent true, at least at an unconscious level, but Hope Solo was one of many women to express similar concerns. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to feel uncomfortable about one team demolishing another – particularly not in a developing sport.
Other than “it’s elite sport; get over it”, the common defence of the US was that they are engaged in a long and bitter dispute with US Soccer for equal pay and that they were therefore hypermotivated to demonstrate just how gifted they are. Which is fine, it’s clearly a fight very much worth fighting, but it’s not to downplay their struggle to point out that pretty much every other side at the World Cup had faced far greater inequalities and injustices, and that Title IX, the legislation passed in 1972 to ensure that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance”, has given the US an enormous advantage.
Should that modify the US’s behaviour? Perhaps not, but it probably should be borne in mind in the conversation about the conversation. Certainly it means comparisons of USA v Thailand with Germany v Brazil at the 2014 Men’s World Cup or even Tottenham sticking nine past Wigan in the Premier League in 2009, when there was at least a rough equivalence of resources, are largely irrelevant.
The other flashpoint came with Alex Morgan’s celebration of her goal against England in the semi-final, as she pretended, pinkie-extended, to drink a cup of tea. Fundamentally, it wasn’t a big deal, but it was bizarre how quickly the conversation about the conversation was dragged down misleading cul-de-sacs as though the issue was about her celebrating, rather than the nature of the celebration.
Morgan herself explained that she was referring to the idiom “here’s the tea” meaning “here’s the gossip”: “I feel like we didn’t take an easy route through this tournament and ‘that’s the tea’.” I admit that sounds weird to me, but there’s no reason not to take her explanation at face value.
But that’s not to say that in the moment there wasn’t a qualm of concern. Was it a reference to the Boston Tea Party? Was it a reference to the stereotypical English love of tea-drinking? Obviously it’s fundamentally not a major issue and it’s hard to believe anybody who professed outrage wasn’t putting it on for effect but, equally, had Morgan been mocking the opponents against whom she’d just scored either by reference to a historical event or a popular stereotype that would have seemed, at the very least, graceless, the thin end of a potentially extremely damaging wedge. It was certainly worth clarifying what was meant.
The third moment at which the conversation about the conversation seemed as though it got out of control also involved England and their last-16 victory over Cameroon. England ended up winning comfortably enough but the headlines were made by the behaviour of Cameroon. Yvonne Leuko elbowed Nikita Parris in the head, Augustine Ejangue seemed to spit on Toni Duggan, Alexandra Takounda committed a horrendous foul on Steph Houghton, dragging her studs down the side of the England captain’s shin, and there were two moments after VAR reviews had gone against them when Cameroon seemed on the verge of walking off. There were reports afterwards that the referee, Qin Liang of China, had not given England a late penalty and had not sent off Takounda because she feared Cameroon would have refused to complete the game had she done so. It was as disgraceful a performance as any witnessed at a World Cup, men’s or women’s, in half a century.
Perhaps Phil Neville might have been better advised to be more diplomatic in his post-match comments but, equally, it was easy to understand why he was so upset: the foul on Houghton, in injury-time, could easily have caused serious injury. And yet there was a small but concerted response to the appalled response that insisted critics should “check their privilege”.
Which is as absurd as the calls on the other side of the equation for Cameron to face some sort of suspension from international football. Cameroon’s women’s football team have faced extraordinary challenges that are difficult for outsiders to comprehend. That they should have felt isolated and let down by their federation is entirely understandable. But the solution to that isn’t elbowing Parris in the head. International sport cannot exist if one team feels it can arbitrarily ignore the laws and basic decency of conduct no matter how justifiably aggrieved it may be about something else.
It’s natural that in a sport that was for so long systematically suppressed, these conversations about the conversation will occur. It’s part of a wider debate about gender politics and it’s part of moving into the mainstream. Of course those who have helped nurture the sport feel protective of it but the fact is that the more people discuss a sport, the more bluffers and blowhards will be involved. When Rodney Marsh suggested Carli Lloyd should start for the US ahead of Alex Morgan he wasn’t, as he was accused of doing, taking some position as a great arbiter above the women’s game, he was doing what he’s always done as a pundit and making a controversial point to draw attention. Gobshites will gobshite.
More broadly, there clearly has been development since 2015. Occluded as it was at times by the BBC’s “our brave girls” narrative – not just a women’s football issue, but a problem with their treatment of almost all live sport as a parochial soap opera about “our” athletes – there was proper criticism of England’s defending, and particularly of how the shift to 4-4-1-1 in the semi-final ended up doing the opposite of what was intended and exposing the flanks. There was a clear contrast to 2015 when the basic technical error, going for the ball with the wrong foot, that led to Laura Bassett’s decisive own goal in the semi- final, was almost entirely ignored.
But that process still has a way to go. It’s a problem when a basic prejudice clearly does still exist and when there is a constituency that will sneer at women’s football purely because it is played by women but the women’s game cannot be said truly to have arrived until the focus falls on the issues themselves, rather than the conversation around the conversation.