by Theo Hewson Betts (22/1/23)
Above: Scenes from the New York City ticker tape parade after the USWNT won the World Cup. Photo: Flickr/New York City Department of Transportation
Let’s get one thing absolutely clear before anything else – America loves winning. That is the most important piece of background to this piece, and it is vital that you remember it above all else.
In women’s football, the US have been trailblazers. They competed in the first women’s World Cup back in 1991 and hosted it in 1999. They won it in each of these years but it was the ‘99 victory that meant the most. It was a public exposure of the sport to the American public and, with Mia Hamm – one of the most respected and talented players of her time – providing the hero that the public needed to get hooked.
The reason that the USA were so ready for the advent of the World Cup is because of the Title IX rule – a civil rights law passed in 1972 that enforced equal funding in schools and universities towards men’s and women’s sports. In the space of 20 years, the number of girls playing high school football jumped from 700 to 120,000 (https://www.sportsver.com).
This progressive attitude towards women in football was way outside of the norm. In some of the most famous footballing nations across Europe and the World, women were essentially banned from playing the sport in any competitive circumstance. So even once the laws were changed, the infrastructure to produce and nurture young talent either didn’t exist or was too far behind to threaten the quality of the US or countries like Norway.
Interestingly, the thing that gave the US its advantage in the women’s game has been the thing holding the nation back in producing elite talents in the men’s game.
The college draft system that exists in the United States essentially replaces the academies of other countries. Young athletes are often offered places at colleges based on their sporting ability, and continue their moulding on campuses across the US, before being brought into the senior club game upon graduation.
When the college system is put side-by-side with elite footballing academies, it pales in comparison, as players don’t begin being effectively moulded for the adult game until they get out of college. In contrast, academies teach football from ages as young as 6. This is why the US when on a level playing field with countries like Spain, Germany or England, struggles to compare.
Contrast this with the approach to the women’s game – where the USA had college football education and other nations had next to none – and it becomes incredibly easy to see how the US managed to make its mark as a powerhouse of the world’s game.
The US women’s team had an advantage and then started winning. Winning in the US is the best way of drawing the attention of the populace and this was a sport, although not yet operating at its maximum capacity, that America had an opportunity to dominate for years.
American sports are full of irony. Baseball teams are named World Champions for leagues played entirely in the US. Athletes such as Tom Brady or Michael Jordan are lauded as the best athletes in the history of the world despite playing sports that are largely America-based. There is a real belief within the nation that Americans have a superiority in the sporting world, and early victories in women’s football provided more support for that belief.
Regardless of the massive achievement that was winning the first World Cup, in order to catch fire, the football team needed a spark. That spark came when the USA became the host of the 1999 tournament. It gave fans across the country the opportunity to witness a winning team.
The average attendance across that tournament was 37,000 and the American team scored 18 goals in six games on their way to a second World Cup in three tournaments. The overall attendance at the tournament was not beaten until 2015, which had more matches than the original layout. Not only was it one of the most successful tournaments in women’s sports, but it ignited the American interest in what they call soccer and embedded it firmly into the American psyche.
Mia Hamm was the star of the team and she was just important in pushing the popularity of the sport as the team’s success. The US is so commercially centred that the sport needed a Michael Jordan. It needed a Tom Brady, a Babe Ruth. Mia Hamm became that for football.
Hamm appeared in numerous adverts for popular products:
- A Gatorade advert with Michael Jordan that ended with her judo tackling the basketballer to the floor
- Became the mascot for the Wheaties box after the World Cup
- Appeared on essentially every late-night cable TV show
- Was profiled on television repeatedly
- Was the focus of the game Mia Hamm 64 – a Nintendo Soccer Game
Hamm became the marketable player that the sport needed to convince young girls to start playing. Rather than aiming for nothing in particular, they could aim to be the next Mia Hamm; and this had a huge impact on how popular the sport was in schools.
The number of high school girls playing football had risen to a quarter of a million by 1999 and that did not stop rising. It is now the most popular sport for girls of that age and America’s national team is not getting any worse as time goes on.
The thing that makes America’s relationship with football so intriguing is its dismissal of the men’s game. Despite impressive talents like Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey operating at the elite level of the European game, the national team were never as successful as their counterparts, with the very college system that elevated the women’s game, holding back the men.
An interesting observation over recent weeks has come in all of my discussions with friends about the Qatar World Cup. There was no mention of their national team since Gregg Berhalter’s young side were knocked out by the Netherlands. There is a rejection of failure in American culture and so the women’s team remains at the present time lauded as greater than the men’s.
The legacy of Mia Hamm and the ‘99ers’ will live for a long time; not just in the memory of those who were there to witness it, but also in the stepovers and strikes of the young girls who dream of making it themselves.
Football is the World’s sport, and America empowered generations of girls where other countries failed them. Now, as the rest of the world continues the scramble to catch up, the US can wave them on from the finish line, secure in the knowledge that they can legitimately say they have been World Champions.