Sports

The 2019 Women’s World Cup Isn’t About Style Points

The sport’s minnows are playing for results and respect.

Alex Morgan on the field, celebrating with her arms outstretched.
Alex Morgan of the U.S. celebrates after scoring her team’s eighth goal during the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup Group F match between USA and Thailand at Stade Auguste-Delaune on June 11 in Reims, France.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images.

Good news if you’re one of the many people unhappy that the U.S. women’s national team celebrated goals eight through 13 during its demolition of Thailand on Tuesday: You probably won’t see any goals eight through 13 for the rest of the tournament.

There are six teams at the 2019 Women’s World Cup that are ranked lower than Thailand in FIFA’s women’s rankings: Argentina, Nigeria, Cameroon, South Africa, Jamaica, and the Americans’ next opponent, Chile. But Chile and its star keeper Christiane Endler kept Sweden scoreless for 84 minutes before running out of gas and allowing two late goals. Argentina has already produced one of the shock results of the tournament, holding 2011 winner Japan scoreless in its opening fixture. Canada struggled to break down Cameroon’s defense and beat them with just one goal. South Africa scored first and was still tied with Spain before Nothando Vilakazi’s 82nd-minute red card opened the door for Spain to score twice more.

The tournament’s slightly less underdoggy underdogs have also impressed. New Zealand kept the Netherlands at bay until second-half stoppage time. Italy shocked Australia. Scotland made England sweat for its opening round win. The only favorites to have cruised are the actual favorites, France and the U.S., along with Norway and a Brazil team whose demise may have been greatly exaggerated.

Because so many of these close games have featured one-way traffic, and so many of these potential upsets have fizzled out after the 80th minute, there’s a sense that a tournament billed as potentially the best ever has lacked entertainment value. But it’s the right of the weak in soccer to play to keep games close, to try to steal a goal at the other end. For the first time in history, these traditional lesser lights of women’s soccer are proving themselves capable of standing up and resisting the world’s big teams, and that in and of itself is a big step in the evolution of the sport.

Even down 3–0 coming into the second half, Thailand barely attacked, knowing an open game wasn’t going to do it any favors. A non-open game didn’t do it any favors either, alas. But Thailand and its fellow minnows aren’t playing for style points. They want results. Perhaps that’s because there’s a feeling that if they bring home a win (or a draw against a strong team) from the World Cup, it will make the powers that be in their federations pay attention to the women’s side of the game and invest more money in the program to help boost the level of play further. “We have started getting support now from the Argentinean football federation for the team,” said coach Carlos Borrello after the draw. “It’s true that results help a lot, and this will definitely help and reinforce all the work.”

It’s a bit of a Catch-22. The players feel they have to get results to earn more money, but the surest way to get results is to put more money into your program upfront. No country is immune from this, not even the U.S., whose players have sporting situations that would be the envy of most of their competition, yet are still suing their federation for equal treatment and financial compensation. Which they deserve, no matter if they beat Thailand by 13 goals.

But FIFA and many of the world’s domestic governing bodies have proved more interested in monetary results than competitive ones. Thailand did win a game at the 2015 World Cup, against fellow debutantes the Ivory Coast, and its federation pledged more money to the program. That doesn’t appear to have happened: The Guardian says a good chunk of the Thai team’s budget comes directly from its general manager, Nualphan Lamsam. The Jamaica team hosted fundraisers so it could afford to go to the World Cup. Argentina’s women didn’t play a game between 2015 and 2017, and once reportedly slept on the bus while traveling to an international friendly because the federation hadn’t booked a hotel.

That’s not the behavior of institutions that care about how their teams will fare at the world’s showcase tournament. The conditions are unequal, but the struggle is the same, and no matter what country they’re from, these women shouldn’t have to spend the World Cup competing for their sporting lives and the futures of their national team programs. The stage (and the prize money, also wildly imbalanced in favor of the men but not insignificant to the many semipro and amateur players competing in France) ought to be enough. When it is, that will be something worth celebrating.