This Beautiful Game

Women’s soccer is still seen as less than. After the World Cup in Paris, we need to ask ourselves: Why won’t we let the winners take all?

by Katherine Bernard
Oct 6 2019, 9:43am

I attended my first professional women’s soccer match this past September: the 2018 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) final between the North Carolina Courage and the Portland Thorns, in Portland, Oregon. I used to hate soccer. Watching a soccer game was, I thought, as stimulating as watching dead leaves roll across some blacktop. At age seven, I quit after one season; I didn’t believe a ball rolling through two orange cones was more meaningful than a ball rolling anywhere else. After that last game, I tapped and watched my ball roll down our suburban driveway and slip into a storm drain. Goal.

My girlfriend, a to-the-core soccer fan since childhood, was the first to tell me soccer is a mirror for the world. We’d include days for “soccer tourism” during our vacations, attending local games abroad. I experienced the games with and through her, and I saw the ways the game was a common language between people across physical and cultural barriers. Still, it was the language of men.

"I'd never seen ponytails flail and catch the light like the bodies of surfacing fish, streaming behind heads clammering to meet the ball."

But then I’d never seen a packed stadium cheering for women. I’d never seen a woman slide-tackle another woman, then help her up. I’d never seen ponytails flail and catch the light like the bodies of surfacing fish, streaming behind heads clamoring to meet the ball. I never heard the sound of ball-head collision resonate in a stadium, and the sound of a whistle had never reduced me to a rage melt or globby, happy tears. From the back row at Providence Park, as I watched the Courage take on the Thorns, those dead leaves crumbled into confetti and blasted from a cannon in my heart, and I became a women’s soccer superfan. Dumb with love, I still don’t have the words for how utterly beautiful the game is. But now I know why it is internationally called “the beautiful game.” Maybe that’s enough.

In June, we flew to Paris to watch the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) compete in the Women’s World Cup. I still don’t know all the technical words for how players handle the ball. I did not know what the “bend it” in Bend It Like Beckham meant until I saw a ball curve into the corner pocket. After five World Cup games in France, I didn’t know what “trapping” was, but I knew enough to yell, “Stop stopping to stop it!,” at a player who hesitated before unleashing a goal attempt. This is the beauty of the game: it is simple enough that even the uninitiated feel the possibility of what it could be. All you have to know is that the ball going into the net is a goal.

Sarah Lucas, "Geezer", 2002, Paper collage, Acrylic paint on wood © Sarah Lucas, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

Is the team a “they” or an “it”?

I think the USWNT are a “they” when they embrace, when Megan Rapinoe throws her legs up and sloth-wraps the trunk of a celebrating teammate. Others funnel into the joy, and “they” hug. The team is an “it” when it scores, because it does so with the power of all the legs that have spent minutes not scoring. Every second it moves back and forth, it thrusts, it defends. It wins. When on the field at the World Cup, “it” is the United States, but the team is called “the U.S.” If you say “the U.S.” you mean the team, a team of women. Any other time, “the U.S.” means the government. If soccer is a mirror for the world, then these women are our mirror. If the women’s game is beautiful, then this is our beautiful world.

At the first World Cup match we attended, I marveled when I saw Rose Lavelle with circles of dirt on her socks (which she wears higher than anyone else wears them, to her kneecaps). She danced with the ball with funny grace and touches so soft she could have kicked a ball of flowers down the field without releasing a petal. Three weeks later, she would score the second goal for the United States in the final against the Netherlands. Her strong left foot carried her body into full orbit around her head as she watched the ball soar into the net and became a global superstar. We won.

It’s difficult to be vulnerable to fandom when there’s a risk your team might lose. Of course, loss is not failure, and cheering for women’s soccer can help shape a new cultural mental narrative. The majority of male athletes are not champions every year, and yet they are paid and adored. When men fail, it is worth the effort; it is valiant and emotional. When women fail, it is shameful. We ignore female athletes, potential losers that they are, and we give sports over to men, missing the poetry of our contest.

What made me cry at that first game in September was the silver and gold tinsel that cannoned to rain on the NWSL champions. For the first time, my mind did not skip ahead to, “Someone will have to sweep that up,” but was completely engrossed. This was the moment these women deserved: 100,000 reflections in the air and on the ground and on their bodies, mirrors of this beautiful world.

women's world cup