The Men’s World Cup isn’t just about who the best team in the world is. It’s a celebration of the sport itself. It’s a celebration of what human bodies can do. And while FIFA’s marketing of the tournament as a cultural touchstone that brings people of all walks of life together is a bit self-serving and disingenuous, they’re not exactly wrong on that point, either.
The Women’s World Cup is all of those things, but it’s not the whole story.
Women’s football— and really, women’s sports— has historically struggled for legitimacy. England outright banned the women’s game until 1971. In some countries, women are still not allowed to play to this day. Even in countries that are known for their strong women’s programs, the institutional and cultural support can be lacking. Just look at Brazil. Or Norway. Or the United States. The fact that there’s a Women’s World Cup in the first place is a hard-won victory; a testament to hard work and advocacy by players and coaches and other stakeholders, sometimes at great personal and professional risk. Getting to the WWC is hard — much, much harder than it ever needed to be.
The Women’s World Cup is a celebration. But it’s also an act of defiance. If you’ll pardon the metaphor: it’s a giant middle finger to people who told women they weren’t good enough to play. So you’ll forgive me for not taking complaints about player behavior seriously.
In the wake of the USWNT’s demolition derby job against Thailand earlier in the group stages, the players attracted a wave of criticism for both racking up the score and celebrating their goals, calling it a sign of disrespect toward their opponents. As our own Kudzi Musarurwa notes, that line of criticism is wrong on its face. And as AfXI editor Stephanie Yang wrote, the fault behind the set of circumstances that allowed for Thailand to be beaten like that go well beyond Jill Ellis’ squad. But that sure didn’t stop mainstream sports
bloviators columnists from spilling ink on the USWNT’s supposed lack of “class.”
The Americans obliquely responded to the criticism during their win over Chile with pointedly modest celebrations, including a polite golf clap from Carli Lloyd.
While the outrage over goal celebrations was still peaking, certain corners of American media latched onto Megan Rapinoe and her decision not to sing the national anthem before the Thailand game. There is not a common expectation for Americans — or American athletes — to observe the anthem by singing along. It’s also not required in the rules US Soccer passed in 2017 in order to curtail Rapinoe’s protests the previous year. But for critics and commentators looking for a reason to speak against female athletes — and Rapinoe in particular — the latest anthem episode proved too tempting to pass up.
And in the other big source of controversy from the group stages, Sam Kerr responded to critics following Australia’s come-from-behind win over Brazil. Her message was straight and to the point: “Suck on that one.” Right away, Kerr found herself the target of pointed criticism for her tone. Commentators called her “immatu*re” and “bitter.” She “lost her credibility.” Her words “overshadowed” the team’s accomplishment.
For her part, Kerr had the best possible response: dropping four goals on Jamaica and lifting Australia into a second place finish in the group, securing a place in the knockout rounds.
If you follow women’s sports — or, indeed, if you’re a woman or nonbinary person who’s had to make their way in the world— none of this is particularly surprising. People of marginalized genders are constantly criticized for what they do. Or what they say. Or, not what they say, but how they say it. Tone policing becomes part of the background hum of your daily life. The secret that marginalized people learn before long is that it ultimately doesn’t matter how carefully you choose your words or modulate your tone— someone will have an issue with it. For those critics, the fact that you’re saying or doing anything at all is the real problem.
So the players’ determination to say and do what they want anyway — to celebrate all their goals and clap back at their haters — is part of the story of this World Cup. It may even be the best part, so far. It’s certainly become my favorite. Nothing these women say or do will ever be good enough for some people, not least the ones who believe that the whole idea of women’s football being taken seriously is, itself, ludicrous. The players are aware that they’re just not going to please everyone, and they’re not going to even try anymore. For athletes who are often held up and marketed as role models, this is perhaps the most inspired I’ve ever felt as a woman while watching them.
The World Cup is a chance to celebrate the sport we love and the heights of human physical prowess. But this Women’s World Cup is turning into something else: a celebration of women who are done putting up with your nonsense.