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Women’s Soccer Shouldn’t Be Performative

We should examine why we crave thrilling games, and how we react when we don’t get them. 

ABC’s “Good Morning America” - 2019

As the Women’s World Cup wraps up, there are some notable takeaways. We have learned to appreciate beer goggles during celebrations (insert Ashlyn Harris’ entire InstaStory feed), and we have witnessed the powerful ways to mother.

The world has borne witness to phenomenal and indomitable goalkeeping (I LOVE YOU SARI VAN VEENENDAAL), and also to camaraderie on the pitch.

We have been reminded that homophobia and other injustices will not be tolerated by women in football. It has been underlined by the once again reigning world champions that not submitting to tradition and declining to go to “the fucking White House” is, in fact, an act of patriotism. This has been impactful and important.

Over the last five weeks, there was the expected mix-and-match basket of riveting matches and dull and frustrating ones, but above all was the unpredictability of the games. The final of any World Cup is supposed to be dramatic and nerve-wracking, and judging by the stress levels of my colleagues, it definitely was. But in terms of actual play, response, attacking and defensive structure, the third-place game between Sweden and England was more interesting. That is something I was reminded of as teams who weren’t supposed to be fun to watch ended up thrilling us. We assume that certain teams are boring, and they can be, but which of our assumptions are unfair, and which are reasonable? Is it, in fact, limiting to always demand that women’s soccer be riveting in order to appreciate it?

The third-place match between England and Sweden had me expecting the Lionesses to surge ahead and afford Ellen White an opportunity to seal the deal and get the Golden Boot. I was running late for the game, and when I checked my phone at 22 minutes into the first half, I was astounded to see the score was 2-0 for Sweden. In a recent Burn It All Down preview of the semifinal and final, I described Sweden as sturdy like an IKEA bookcase, the implication being that they are less of a feast for the eyes than Japan or the Netherlands, less feisty than the USA, less interesting than France.

Well, my new crush Kosavare Asllani took advantage of the defensive meltdown in England’s end and smashed up my predictions. Asllani is a badass who has gorgeous eyelash extensions and defies rules by recognizing her dual-heritage as a Swedish national and Kosovar-Albanian. She has made the hand sign for Albanian freedom (an eagle) despite being warned. FIFA deems the gesture “political” and players can be reprimanded and fined for that. I love anything that re-emphasizes that sports and geopolitics are inherently connected. I was humbled and delighted as Sweden forged ahead, and instead of being a plain navy Klippan, morphed into a gorgeous statement piece in bold patterns.

The match between England and Sweden was gripping. Sweden had a 2-0 lead but Fran Kirby replied before the second half to make it an edge-of-your-seat 2-1. I had thought I would make a leisurely brunch, but watching this match destroyed my culinary prowess as the French toast burned and the pierogies went soggy. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the screen; not ideal when using a gas stove.

Sweden was coming out full-force and Caroline Seger was commanding the field in a simple and effective manner. Sweden’s goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl (the second-strongest GK performance of the tournament in my opinion) was astute and made a few brilliant saves. England pressed heavily and England head coach Phil Neville predictably complained on the sideline. Ellen White’s goal was declared offside by a VAR review.

Sweden stood firm and strong in the searing heat as England’s attacks became increasingly desperate, the level of intensity on the pitch exploded. I secretly wanted Ellen White (a fellow striker and cat lover) to succeed and score but that didn’t happen. I had to disconnect emotionally and settle for seeing her as a gem of a person and classy competitor. White did win the Bronze Boot, which is some consolation to her fans.

Sweden went on to win third place and rejoiced in a manner befitting impeccable athletes - also prompting Phil Neville to make vacuous statements belittling the match and the result. Former English national Claire Rafferty was happy to call his bullshit out.

Initially I thought I would embrace a boring match and just be grateful that it exists as part of my struggle against the idea that women’s soccer always has to be exciting for it to be validated. I don’t want the World Cup to be performative. I want soccer to be organic and sincere, even if that means a boring game. Imagine my surprise when I saw that the team least likely to be explosive and interesting actually explode and captivate millions of viewers.

But sometimes it should be OK for soccer to be deathly boring, because the reality is that it often is. There are some matches that make your blood pump wildly, and there are some that drag on, where you find yourself browsing Alibaba instead of paying attention.

I even found myself disengaged from Canada at times, even though my emotions are tied tightly to the team and my captain, Christine Sinclair. Their first group stage game against Cameroon was the least interesting match I saw during the tournament, and a frustrating one to watch from a Canadian bar in Paris. There was inconsistent defending and little or no solid attacking from either side. Yes, it was pouring rain in Montpellier, but from what I saw I have to be honest - it was meh. The next match up against the Netherlands was far more exciting. But not every match can or should be exciting.

Soccer players are not entertainers by choice. They are committed to training and competing. Yes, they might want to delight fans and show they appreciate the support, but their job is to compete. Like Nike, the goddess of victory, their priority is to be glorious in their disciplines, not to ensure we have all had a good time. The 2015 Women’s World Cup final between Japan and the USA was not the greatest. Sure Carli Lloyd’s hat trick was historic and amazing, but the match itself was hardly a nail-biter mostly because the USA was up by four goals in the first half. It was a final that became less interesting because of the goal difference and overpowering of one side.

Yes, I was delighted to have taken in a fabulous third place match. Watching the Swedish team celebrated jubilantly was delightful.

But if the match had not been as fabulous, that would have also been fine. We need to embrace women’s soccer in all of its forms: thrilling, frustrating, slow, stale, and yes, glorious.

Asking women’s soccer to be one thing is like telling someone you love to only have one mood all the time. It is disingenuous and unfair. Sport can be disappointing. It can break our hearts. But it can also be a place of banality, and nothing. That’s important, because we want women’s football to be a place of growth, a place of accepted reality, not a circus show. (Shitshow circuses, though, are still welcome.)