The United States’ 2-1 gold-medal-winning victory over Japan on Thursday was another thrilling demonstration of the allure of women’s soccer, at least in the finals of its biggest events. More than 80,000 people attended the match in an iconic stadium in a country that fancies itself the founder and guardian of the game—one that barred women from playing it for 50 years (“the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged,” the Football Association declared in 1921) and was painfully slow to develop a national program after the first Women’s World Cup in 1991.
Games like USA-Japan—in which Carli Lloyd’s two goals were just barely enough against the skillful, resolute Women’s World Cup champions—and the equally thrilling USA-Canada semifinal show why even the most chauvinistic soccer powers are finding room for the women’s version. Great Britain’s women’s team won three games and exited the Olympics tournament in the quarterfinals, the same departure point as its men. France and Canada showed they can compete with the big girls, too. Brazil and Sweden left with reputations intact. Entry into the 12-team field was so competitive that two-time World Cup winner Germany didn’t even qualify. And while the crowd in Wembley Stadium likely was booing FIFA president Sepp Blatter during the medals ceremony for his organization’s general loathsomeness, let’s hope they were also recalling his suggestion that women play in tighter shorts.
The Olympic tournament and its subplots deepened a bigger-picture trend that began not with the feel-good 1999 United States team that won the World Cup but with the team that lost the 2011 tournament in Germany last summer. No longer does watching women’s soccer have to be a cause. It can just be worth watching. When Hope Solo picked a fight early in the tournament with Brandi Chastain, arguing that the national team star turned NBC announcer wasn’t being supportive enough, the U.S. goalkeeper had it wrong. Women’s soccer doesn’t need boosterism to help it grow. It needs more games like the last two played by the Americans. The first was filled with trash talk, cheap shots, head games, and whining. The second was fast-paced, artful, and uplifting. Together they covered the range of on- and off-field sports drama and entertainment.
The Hope-Chastain fight was another sign of progress. A loudmouthed athlete threatened to blow up her Q rating by picking a fight with someone paid to critique her team’s performance. Not smart, but then not all athletes are. And Chastain, while perhaps subconsciously reluctant to boost the status of her successors, thereby diminishing her own, called it as she saw it. During the final against Japan, she seemed to avoid praising Solo, whose two remarkable saves bailed out the United States in a game in which they were outplayed. But Chastain did offer an olive branch of commentary afterward: “When the time was needed to make a big save, she did just that. And it was amazing.”
We saw Canada’s players react publicly the way athletes usually react privately after a terrific disappointment: They blamed the ref and cried conspiracy, while discounting their own dirty play and good fortune. And when have viewers of a women’s sporting event reacted with the sort of jingoistic finger-pointing and name-calling that followed the United States’ 4-3 victory? If that’s not progress—progress defined as a significant number of people (millions watched the game in each country) caring about the outcome of a game—then I don’t what is. I’ve missed the geopolitical sports blood feuds of the Cold War era. Who knew that cute, inoffensive, cuddly Canada—Canada!—might replace the big, bad Soviet Union as the USA’s Public Enemy No. 1? Because of a women’s soccer game.
In the coming days, we will be treated to another round of stories asking why a group of American athletes who in the past year have produced four breathtaking games that have Trended the lights out—against Brazil and Japan at the World Cup, against Canada and Japan this week—can’t play in a sustainable professional league at home. The last incarnation, Women’s Professional Soccer, went belly up this spring. Just before the Olympics final, three of its teams announced plans for a new league in 2013. Details were scarce, though, and U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati, in an interview with Sports Illustrated soccer writer Grant Wahl, was circumspect. “We’ll see what we can figure out, not on how we get the right set-up started, but on how we get the right set-up sustainable. That’s more important,” Gulati said. “Whether that’s an existing set-up or some other set-up or a combination, I don’t know yet.”
The first generation of great American women soccer players evolved without the benefit of a league. But that was before women’s soccer had a deep worldwide player pool or broad international competition. For two decades, it’s been the case that despite the marketability and big-event love for players like Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy, and now Solo, Abby Wambach, and Alex Morgan, and for all of the clear social good that a team of diverse, tough, and talented women athletes offers to girls in need of role models and men in need of gender sensitivity training, the business model for a pro league might not yet exist. A few teams in the men’s league, Major League Soccer, have linked up with women’s adjuncts, but the prospect of a fully funded partnership along the lines of basketball’s WNBA isn’t on the table. “It’s got to make sense economically, and it’s got to make sense ultimately for people in the private sector,” Gulati says, obviously and correctly.
Thursday’s gold medal won’t change that. But the aftermath of the U.S. win feels different in ways that might be more important for women’s soccer, and women’s sports generally, than another new league. A bunch of women played soccer, they did it with passion and skill and aggression and joy, they were good sports and bad, their performances were evaluated on their own terms, and a lot of people watched. This U.S. team might not be pioneers but, celebrating on the field in Nike T-shirts adorned with a self-aggrandizing and grammatically awkward slogan available for purchase instantly, they are something more fundamentally familiar to American sports fans: winners.
Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the London Olympics.