This was originally supposed to be a power ranking of soccer players as Game of Thrones characters. The show ended last night in a hailstorm of tweets, gifs, and “Really? Bran?”s, but as I sat in front of my laptop pondering who has had similar arcs or is in a similar position, it got me thinking about the roots of why some players have power and others don’t, why even the most rich and powerful female players are still constrained by an overarching system, and if it was at all possible to subvert that system while still retaining power. (If only the writers of Game of Thrones had also considered these questions with any kind of depth - but I digress.)
In addition to trying to weld together soccer and pop culture into some kind of ice-and-fire bastard, I also spent part of last week in New York, attending a forum put on by the Institute for Public Knowledge at NYU. One of the topics we addressed was how to watch the Women’s World Cup. On the panel with me was esteemed Canadian sports writer Shireen Ahmed, and we spent some time puzzling over the forum’s topic – what does it mean to ask how one watches the World Cup? There are literal answers about TV broadcasts and livestreams and who holds media rights. But what we found as we repeatedly asked ourselves that question was a more meta outlook encompassing the ways in which we approach and absorb entertainment.
Here are some key questions to ask yourself before a World Cup game: What do I know about the countries playing? How did these teams qualify for the tournament? Why do I know any important names on the team, or why do I not know these names?
It’s possible to simply sit and enjoy a game of soccer – in fact it would be exhausting spending the entire tournament trying to critically analyze every aspect of it. At some point, you watch soccer because you like watching 22 people kick a ball at opposite ends of the pitch. But the larger context of women’s soccer is that we must regularly ask ourselves who can watch it, and how they can watch it, and why we’re being exposed to the game in that particular way. Is your game available only via livestream, with no mainstream broadcaster? Does it have a high production value, or knowledgeable analysts? Have you ever heard of anyone on either team before?
Answering these questions can help to reveal not just the gaps in our knowledge, but uncover the systemic issues that affect the growth of the women’s game. At the same IPK forum, multiple speakers discussed how FIFA and federations worked directly against the growth of the women’s game, with various countries digging up bogus medical reasons to prohibit women from playing or forbidding clubs from letting women use their stadiums. Consider this factoid, delivered by historian Joshua Nadel in a presentation he did with fellow historian Brenda Elsey on the history of women’s soccer in Latin America: at one point in 1940, it was estimated that there were a thousand women’s games happening every week, just around Rio de Janeiro alone. One. Thousand. Games. What a paradise of the women’s game, promptly followed by nearly forty years of a government ban in Brazil, from 1941 – 1979.
This is just one of many stories of women being marginalized in the sport. The United States is no innocent in the matter; US Soccer gave the first iteration of the USWNT the barest dregs, tossing them hand-me-down men’s uniforms, paying them nothing, and requiring players to haul their own gear and set up their own practice equipment. And as we know, the 2019 USWNT is currently suing US Soccer for gender-based discrimination. Progress comes, but it’s rarely, if ever given – it has to be asked for, demanded, and taken.
So watch the World Cup with clear eyes. International events tend to bring out the clannishness in all of us, whether we have a home team to root for or a grandparent who was from Cameroon or a sudden and inexplicable attachment to Scotland. But I promise it will make your experience of the tournament that much deeper and richer if you understand the forces that have shaped the ways the World Cup is executed, from the coverage in the media to the rivalries both classic and new to the fact that FIFA disrespectfully scheduled multiple other events at the same time.
And for the record, Ali Krieger is the Sansa Stark of the USWNT.