Magical Marta

It’s been some time since I wrote about Marta, who has moved back to Sweden, although she is now with Tyresö.  I was under no delusions that she was going to stay given that when she left the WPS was hanging by a thread.  I have regrets that she left but no anger.  Marta paid her dues; it was the league (and the public at large) that couldn’t keep up its end of the bargain.

Back in Sweden, Marta is doing what Marta does best.  Watch the video.  It’s the second goal (although you don’t need me to tell you that). The question is not whether any female player has ever been able to play like Marta; no one has.  The real question is how long it will take before another player can do something like this in the post-Marta world.  (After all, how long did it take after Maradona for Messi to appear?)

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Over And Out

The Women’s Professional Soccer league folded today.  Technically, it didn’t really fold–the press release called it a hiatus until 2013 to resolve the league’s legal issues with the rogue former owner of magicJack (formerly the Washington Freedom)–but effectively the league will never come back.  WPS will have been out of the public eye too long, there will be a talent drain for other leagues, and after two failures in two decades, a new women’s football top league will probably not come around again.

I am feeling such raw grief right now.  I don’t understand why women’s football cannot make it in this country.  The level of talent is astonishing, and there should be an audience.  If the WNBA can attract fans, why couldn’t the WPS?  The 2011 World Cup proved to the larger world that the women’s game is highly skilled and intense.  I see no reason why a women’s league could not be as pleasurable as the MLS, perhaps even more so.  It just needed to grow.

So why didn’t they come?

WPS Talent Drain

Verónica Boquete is going to FC Energy Voronezh, a club I had never heard of before, but is, according to Wikipedia, the most successful club in the Russia’s top women’s league.  (Brazil’s Aline, Cristiane, and Fabiana will also be going to Russia to play for WFC Rossiyanka.)  I adore Boquete; she plays for the team that I love, the Philadelphia Independence.  According to Equalizer Soccer, Independence coach Paul Riley expects her to be back, akin to WNBA players who go to Europe during the offseason.  I hope she returns because she is an amazing and elegant player.  Nevertheless, I fear this is a permanent departure given the general chaos that is the future of the WPS.

Boquete was named the league’s player of the year (the Michelle Akers Player of the Year.)  She was a major reason why the Independence made it to the title game, losing to the Western New York Flash on penalties.  It was not an unexpected result; the Flash has the much vaunted attacking prowess of Christine Sinclair, Alex Morgan, and of course, Her.  Despite the Flash’s big names, in my eyes Boquete was the revelation of the year, at least from a league view.*  She’s a tough, ridiculously gifted, never-say-die midfielder who deserves to be treated like any star in the men’s game.  Because she is Spanish, she (ironically) does not play for a high-profile women’s national team, which means she will not get the same worldwide recognition as other gifted non-Americans such as Louisa Necib, Fatmire Bajmaraj, Homare Sawa, and Marta.  Fortunately, WPS fans got the chance to appreciate her brilliance, even if the rest of the world–including the Spanish–did not.

But now she’s going to Russia and will get a salary that the WPS cannot compete with (about $114,000).  The influx of money into the Russian game is a mirror of what is happening in the Russian men’s game, which is why Samuel Eto’o is now the world’s highest paid player, despite moving to a team that was 11th in the Russia’s top league last year, and is no fixture of the top league.  (This is the same team that also now employs the former Brazilian great Roberto Carlos.)

The amount of money funneled through the Russian top leagues is a statement of intent, at least by the billionaire robber barons of the post-Soviet era who want Russia to be a football powerhouse.**  If said billionaire robber barons are willing to spend the money, I am not going to begrudge them the right to build a strong women’s national league.

Still, I can be sad about it.  Boquete’s departure portends bad things to come for the WPS and probably a mass exodus, at least among the top players.  Boston Breakers are on the verge of collapse (again), the attendance of Sky Blue FC did not improve despite a post-World Cup bump around the league, the WPS is fighting with magicJack (formerly Washington Freedom) owner Dan Borislow, and the second WPS commissioner has left her position only a year after taking the job.  The WPS is without a sponsor because Puma did not renew.  The 2012 season will see the international players leave for the Olympics.  Swedish international Caroline Seger is going back to her home country to play for Tyresö FF, and Marta’s future is up in the air.  If Marta goes elsewhere that would be devastating, and a real blow to the WPS’s claim that it is the best women’s league in the world.

There are also bright sides (although regular season attendance was down that trend was reversed by a post-World Cup bump, and the playoffs were the best attended ever.***), and I strongly advise you to read the Equalizer Soccer post I linked to above about the WPS offseason.  At the moment though I am not feeling very hopeful.  I blame Hurricane Irene.

Footnotes:

*  The revelation of the year in the entire sport was Homare Sawa, which is why she will deservedly win FIFA female player of the year award.  In my eyes, the top three players of the year in order are Sawa, Boquete, and Marta.  I doubt FIFA will see it that way, but FIFA has even more of an ignorance about the women’s game than it does the men’s game.

**  Even when their money is not in Russian clubs.  Roman Abramovich, the owner of the English club Chelsea put a lot of his own money into the Russian National Team and was behind Guus Hiddink’s tenure there.  Abramovich also seems to have some connection to the Russian club Zenit St. Petersburg although I cannot figure out what it is.

*** Even though WPS figures are not particularly thrilling, it should be noted that leagues across Europe would be envious of WPS numbers.  Look at the attendances for Germany’s Frauen-Bundesliga, Europe’s premier league.  The WPS 2011 average was 3,535.  During the playoffs it was 5,982.

Women’s World Cup Day 15: Rising Sun

The final of the World Cup saw the Japan beat the US on penalty kicks 12 years after the 1999 final, proving that I should never ever make predictions again.

Japan v. United States

The problem with following sports is that when your favorite player or team loses you get irrationally depressed.  Chances are you don’t know the player(s) except maybe through media such as Twitter.  Most likely you have more loyalty to the team than the players do.  Unless you work for the team, and very few of us do, the result on the field has no bearing on your daily life.  Yet being a fan is like being in love, and therefore you invest a part of your heart and soul into your team’s performance.  When they win you rejoice; when they lose you ache with pain.  It’s a communal love shared with the players, but even more so with the other fans who for that instant become an extended family.  There is no good reason for this.  It’s not logical.  it just is how it is.

Today the United States Women’s National Team lost in the World Cup final to Japan on penalty kicks.  Technically they drew 2-2, but only one team lifted the trophy.  I, like my fellow fans, share the tremendous sadness of the US Women, because I too love them.  This is the worst I have ever felt after a football match.  The only team I have ever been this invested in is Barcelona who generally win, but I cannot imagine I would feel any worse if Barcelona lost.  I am not the only fan who is depressed today; Julie Foudy looked near tears afterwards.

Another reason for the tremendous sadness is because I worry about the fate of the WPS.  While a US win may not have saved it, one wonders if the loss is a deathblow.  I hope not.  The US Women played a tremendous tournament, fought well in a tough match, possibly the greatest match women’s football has ever seen, and came up just short in the end.  They have given us far more than the US Men ever have, yet MLS is secure while the WPS is not.  It just doesn’t seem fair.  For all the attention that the US Women got over the past few weeks (God bless ESPN), one wonders if that attention will be refocused onto the league, which does not have major network exposure.  For myself, I will gladly buy an Alex Morgan jersey if they make it in a men’s size, but I am a focus group of one.  The sad thing is that there is no reason the WPS should be flailing.  If anything, this World Cup has shown that women’s football can be of very high quality.  At the international level, the women can put on a better show than the men.  Yet for a whole host of reasons, the women’s game cannot get the same kind of attention and respect.  If that is not enough to make one cry, I don’t know what is.

On to the actual match.

In as much as anything is fair in football, this was a fair enough result.  What the Unites States did to Brazil, Japan did to the United States.  The US had chance after chance in the beginning but could not convert those chances.  Japan fell behind twice but came back twice.  One cannot talk about US tenacity–getting outplayed and still fighting for the win–without giving that same credit to Japan.  They beat the #1, #2, and #5 ranked teams in the world.  The entire tournament Japan played with a style that up until this point was practically unknown in women’s football.  They are the first team from Asia to win a World Cup.  They are the first team not from Europe or the Americas to even win any World Cup, men’s or women’s.  Samurai Blue have nothing on Nadeshiko Japan, and no Japanese player, male or female, will ever have Homare Sawa’s legacy.  Givenf the horrors Japan has faced in the past five months, how can you not be a good sport and feel at least a little happy for Japan?  Even through the tears, there is a small smile.

Both teams would have been worthy winners.  It was an incredible match, from beginning to end, but once Sawa got Japan’s second goal near the end of extra time though (thereby earning the Golden Boot, the Golden Ball, and probably World Player of the Year come December), it felt like Japan was going to win.  There was something in the air, and the US seemed deflated.  Sure enough, in the penalty kicks the US fell apart.  Penalty kicks are a cruel but necessary way to end a knockout match.  Most teams are unlucky to go through one.  The US had to go through two.  Penalty kicks are as much a matter of luck as skill, and this time luck was not with the US.

Although the officiating in this tournament was suspect tonight was very good (a pleasant change from last year’s “Three Stooges” reenactment.)  Everything about this final was pretty clean, save for Azusa Iwashimizu’s red card, and even that was very much in the spirit of the game.  She sacrificed herself to save her team.  There is something noble about that, aggravating as it is.  But that was the story of the match.  The Japanese defense saved the team as it did against Sweden and Germany.  If I could remake my team of the tournament, I would change one position: Saki Kumagai instead of Faye White; Kumagai kept Abby Wambach at bay for almost the entire match.  Another person who deserves to be singled out is Japan’s goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori, who was stellar during the penalty kicks.

For all the Nike ads about pressure, for all the pressure that the US overcame in the past few weeks, tonight they faltered under the pressure.  The US outplayed Japan, they even dominated possession (or so it seemed), their record against Japan is ridiculously good, and they had the lead twice.  Yet, the pressure of being so close to victory did them in.  In the first half hour the US could not convert any of their many chances.  Some of this was due to positioning, some of it was due to plain bad luck.  But both Japanese goals came because the defense, which was rock solid for most of the tournament, fell to that pressure.  Spare a thought for Christie Rampone.  That’s a tough way to end a distinguished career.

One person who cannot be blamed is Pia Sundhage, who was also holding back tears.  This entire tournament she has done nothing but instill confidence in her side and out-coach her opposition.  If not for her, the US would never have gotten past Brazil or France.  Today the result could have gone either way.  She did not control the penalty shoot-out and had no reason to think that her players would not be able to perform.  If she does not keep her job, there is something seriously wrong with the USSF.  We US fans owe her a debt of gratitude; she took a team in conflict and brought them an Olympic title and a World Cup silver medal.  Thank you, Pia Sundhage, you are in our hearts.

If there is one bright spot for this US team, it is the knowledge that we can continue to be competitive in years to come, especially with players like Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe.  Given the way the US played today, I have faith in the future.  Perhaps in four years, the US will finally take back the World Cup.  One hopes so; these players need to get the monkey of 1999 of their backs.  Mia Hamm has long retired, and US Women’s football has a new galaxy of stars.  It is up to us Americans to recognize and appreciate them.  They have merited our love and affection; let’s give it to them.

So now I am going to go cry myself to sleep.  Thank you, dear readers for being with me on this journey.  You have made me feel like a real writer.  I hope you come back when I write about other things, whether football related or no.

The Awards: 

FIFA’s Team of the Tournament:  See for yourself.  Some of those choices (and some of the absences) baffle me.  But never think that FIFA choices make sense.

Golden Glove: Hope Solo

Golden Boot: Homare Sawa; Silver Boot: Marta; Bronze Boot: Abby Wambach

Golden Ball: Homare Sawa; Silver Ball:Abby Wambach; Bronze Ball: Hope Solo

Fair Play Trophy: Japan

Best Young Player: Cailtlin Foord

Marta Has A New Home

And it is Western New York.  Yes, fellow fans, the greatest player in women’s football today and possibly ever, will be playing for Rochester’s new expansion team, the Western New York Flash.  (Here is the story of how the Flash got her.)  After the glamourous failures of the LA Sol and FC Gold Pride, it appears that WPS has more manageable expectations for the crowds that Marta can attract–and it does not include a major media market.

Marta did not have to come back.  She can go to any women’s league in the world–definitely a more secure one.  Her return to the WPS shows that she believes in it and in its quality which cannot be matched by any other league (and probably its money too, which I imagine also cannot be matched by any other league.)

I’m glad Marta is coming back, and I hope that the Flash succeeds where her previous teams failed.  Marta is a once in a generation talent, and she deserves to play in the best league in the world.  Women’s football in the United States, the world’s top tier league, deserves to exist.   But deserve is not a factor in sport, and women’s sports in particular have always faced an uphill battle.

So please, people in Western New York, go to see the Flash.  Keep Marta playing here.

More Bad News From The WPS

Women’s Professional Soccer was dealt another blow.

Apparently, the Chicago Red Stars are suspending operations for the 2011 season.   They are hoping to compete in the 2012 season, but this is not a good sign, as their fan attendance decreased.  The Red Stars are looking for corporate sponsorship so that they may actually be able to advertise, which they were unable to do this past season.  In the Chicago area, the could not even get an average attendance of 5000 spectators per game.

So, to recap, the WPS is now a league based entirely in the northeastern United States (except for the Atlanta Beat.)  There are 5 teams left of the original 9.  Supposedly another two are going to come in, both based in Western New York.

The Women’s World Cup starts in about 6 months, and the WPS is teetering on ruin.  History is repeating itself.  No matter how carefully planned the league was, no matter how minimal the goals have been, no matter how much WPS was aware of not repeated the mistakes of the WUSA, women’s football just cannot get a fair shake in this country.

I’m depressed.

World Cup 2011: You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby…?

I. Fears For the Future

I fear for the future of women’s football (soccer for Americans.  I will use the two names interchangeably in this post.)  The Women’s World Cup starts in Germany this June, and I wonder who will watch it.  This is a shame because it is a good product.  Unlike the WNBA, Women’s Professional Soccer is not overshadowed by the glitz and glamour of its male counterpart.  (Also, for me women’s football is more enjoyable to watch than women’s basketball, or men’s basketball for that matter.)  But I wonder if the WPS will be able to sustain itself.  The signs are not great; last year its most prominent side, the LA Sol folded after its first season–a successful season by athletic standards.  FC Gold Pride (the current league champion) folded last month.  St. Louis Athletica actually folded during the last season.  Attendances have not been stellar.  The WPS is not the only women’s league in the world, but it is the league that, on the whole, attracts the world’s most talented players.  Given that the predecessor to WPS, the WUSA, folded after only a few years, this is a very worrying sign.

Girls who partake in athletics are, on the whole, better adjusted, than those who do not.  They are more likely to succeed in school and life and less likely to get pregnant as teenagers.  Although I cannot prove it, I suspect that young female athletes are also less likely to accept unequal treatment when they grow up.  There are far fewer female role models in sports than males.  Just as boys (and girls) look up to male athletes, girls (and boys) should be able to watch female athletes and admire them first and foremost for their exceptional abilities.

Young girls can and should be able to grow up thinking “I want to do that.”  In the United States, the law is on their side thanks to Title IX, but after college, there is a dearth of visible female athletes.  Women’s tennis carries most of the water and has for a long time.  Every two years, the Olympics comes around and for a brief period of time, the United States cares deeply about women’s athletics–particularly women’s figure skating and gymnastics, the unquestionable marquee events of the Winter and Summer Olympics.  Yet as popular as tennis is (in some circles) and gymnastics and figure skating are periodically, they are all, for the most part, individual sports.  Women’s teams sports have yet to enter that rarified air.

I cannot say what will happen in the future to the WPS or the WNBA or even the WTA (women’s tennis is going through a very bad patch right now, although it is by any means not dire.)   The problems that women’s sports are having right now however, underscore my growing doubts that there will ever be a female athlete who can transfix the American imagination and popularize her sport the way that a Michael Jordan or a Wayne Gretzky were able to do.

II.  The Beginning

I claim no expertise as a historian, but I argue that the birth of modern women’s sport dates to 1884 in a London suburb called Wimbledon.  Wimbledon was, and is, the home of a tennis tournament that the British call “The Championships” but the rest of us simply refer to as Wimbledon.  The tournament started in 1877, but it was open only to men.  In 1884 the competition included, for the first time, a women’s tournament.  In the final Maud Watson defeated her older sister Lillian in three sets.  This marked the first  time that sisters contested the Wimbledon finals and the last time until 2002 when Serena Williams beat her older sister Venus (two women who could not be more different than the Watsons.)  The Wimbledon of 1884 was not the same tournament as the Wimbledon of 2002; it was an amateur tournament with 13 entrants opened only to a select few.  Back then, this new game of lawn tennis was a country club sport.  Maud Watson’s victory was no blow for women’s rights (although it was a stern rejoinder to those who vociferously argued that women were not suited to physical activity.)  In fact, outside of the All England Club Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, there was probably no one who knew or cared about the women’s tournament.  Maud and Lillian Watson’s names were largely forgotten until the rise of the Williams sisters.

Given the relative unimportance of this event, it is fair to ask why have I used that as a starting point of modern women’s sports?  Women played competitive sports, including baseball and golf, much earlier than 1884.  My starting point is indeed somewhat arbitrary.  Nevertheless, I will defend it.  Although the Wimbledon of 1884 and 2010 are completely different, there is an unbroken lineage of competition that extends from now to then.  No other competition can make that claim.  As I will explain below, the major advancements that led to the women’s leagues we have today came out of women’s tennis.

In the years after 1884, women’s sports began in earnest (not because of Wimbledon, but because the time were changing.)  I would recommend this timeline if you are interested in learning about more of the history of women’s sports.  For the purposes of this history however, there are only a few events that I am going to mention.  The United States and French national tennis championships emulated Wimbledon and started women’s tournaments in 1887 and 1897 respectively.  In 1900 the Olympics held competitions for women in tennis and golf.  In 1902, a British woman named Madge Syers competed in the figure skating world championships, which, until then, was an all-male competition.  Syers placed second.  This led to the creation of a women’s world championship, which Syers won.  She also won the figuring skating gold medal at the 1908 Summer Olympics.

III.  The Goddess

In 1919, the first female sports star emerged at Wimbledon like a bolt from the blue.  Her name was Suzanne Lenglen, and she was unlike anything that the genteel British tennis-going public had ever seen before.  The British were awed and scandalized (it should go without saying that she was French); they were scandalized by her, and they kept going to watch her play.  She wore a bandana and flowing dresses that daringly revealed her forearms and calves (her competitors wore corsets), she drank brandy between sets, and she danced around the court with a ballerina’s grace.  She also dominated women’s tennis in a way not seen before or since.  During her post-World War I career, which lasted from 1919 to 1926, she lost only one match that she began (she withdrew from after one set because of whooping cough.)  She was the first female tennis star to turn professional, and she never lost a professional match.  She was tennis’s first artist: her placement and her form were near perfect.  Years later, very few women and almost no men are described as artists–it is one of the many reasons that makes Roger Federer so rare.

Lenglen was sport’s first diva.*  She was not beautiful yet the public could not get enough of her.  Wimbledon had to expand just to accommodate all the people who wanted to see her play.  Her greatest moment probably came in 1924 in a small tournament in Cannes.  There she defeated her American competitor Helen Wills, the eventual heir to her dominance.  The meeting between the two players was hyped around the world and for was simply referred to as “The Match.”  It was the only time these two legends of tennis met on court.

Suzanne Lenglen, like a true diva, died before she could be forgotten.  Despite her athletic prowess, she was actually sickly throughout her life.  In 1938, at age 39, she died of pernicious anemia.  The masses mourned for her–France’s greatest sports legend, the woman who humiliated the British and Americans at their own game.  Lenglen was the forerunner of the modern sports star.  She was supremely talented, she was vain, she knew her worth, and she demanded full and complete attention.  As a personality, I am not sure women’s sport has ever had a successor to Lenglen, although Sonia Henie and Serena Williams probably come closest.  That there are no more personalities like Lenglen’s is truly a shame because such a large personality would attract the media spotlight and subsequently the public.

III.  The Reformer

In the decades immediately following Lenglen’s career, the popularity of women’s sports expanded rapidly.  Other female athletes soon came into prominence.  Perhaps the most famous were track and field/golf/basketball star Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Sonia Henie the Norwegian figure skater.  The former was arguably the first female athlete to break the stereotypes of female athletic ability and femininity.  She even competed against the men (in golf).  Many consider Babe Didrikson Zaharias the finest female athlete ever.  Henie was a more controversial figure.  Like Lenglen, Henie was a star, and she knew it.  For a decade, Henie dominated figure skating, winning 3 Olympic gold medals and 10 world championships.  She then transformed her sports celebrity into Hollywood stardom.  Henie was controversial though because of her ties to Hitler.  Many of her former countrymen (she became a naturalized American) and Americans of Norwegian descent saw her as a Nazi collaborator–she never condemned the Nazis and did not support the Norwegian resistance.  Both Didrikson Zaharias and Henie died young, the former at age 45 and the latter at age 57.

There were some attempts to form women’s leagues in team sports, although success was mixed.  During the World War II era, there was the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (1943-54).  The league was largely forgotten until Penny Marshall’s (fictional) movie “A League of Their Own” brought it back to a cultural consciousness.

But even though there were other well-known female athletes, it was in women’s tennis that pioneered.  In 1950, the color barrier broke as Althea Gibson became the first black tennis player to play at the US Championship, and in 1951 became the first black player to play at Wimbledon.  In 1956 she became the first black player to win a major title at the French Championships.  The next year she became the first black player to win Wimbledon and the US Championships.  In 1953 Maureen “Little Mo” Connolly became the first woman to win the Grand Slam: the Australian, French, Wimbledon, and US Championships all in a calendar year–tennis’s Mount Everest.  And then there was Billie Jean King.

If women’s professional sports can be said to have a mother, it would be Billie Jean King.  It is undeniable that she is the most important figure in women’s sports.  However, I would say that she is the most significant figure in sports history bar none.  Only Jackie Robinson could legitimately claim to have the same importance.  She is justifiably remembered for her tennis and her many titles, but she is more famous for her leadership in the crusade for equality and the founding of a separate women’s tour as a result.  She is also remembered for her victory in the overhyped, but symbolically important Battle of the Sexes.

In September 1970, nine professional female tennis players, upset about the gender inequality in prize money distribution at tennis tournaments, formed their own tour.  These nine women–Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals, Nancy Richey, Kerry Melville Reid, Julie Heldman, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, and Judy Tegart Dalton–not only formed and competed in the league, they did all the hard work of selling it to the public, a tough task given that some of the sport’s most recognizable players (Court, Evert, Goolagong) stayed away.  The battle they fought extended long beyond their playing careers (to wit: Wimbledon only recently starting paying the men’s and women’s champions equal prize money.)  The tennis establishment first tried to ban the breakaway player, but found it could not.  The Virginia Slims Circuit became a success.  Out of this victory arose the Women’s Tennis Association.  Billie Jean King was the WTA’s first president.

King was also a champion of Title IX, to which the continued success of women’s collegiate sports owes its existence.  Without Title IX who knows if there would be a women’s basketball or women’s soccer or women’s field hockey, etc. on college campuses, especially in lean times.  Title IX ensures their existence.  King lobbied for the bill and testified before Congress.  Without Title IX there would be no UNC women’s soccer or no UConn or Tennessee women’s basketball; most of the top women’s athletics programs would never have gotten off the ground.

Despite her success on the court, despite her truly revolutionary off-the-court leadership, what King is most famous for is The Battle of the Sexes, a curious amalgam of King’s tennis and activism.  Bobby Riggs, a top tennis player in the 1930’s and 40’s, and self-professed chauvinist pig, challenged Billie Jean King, the top-ranked woman, to a match to prove that not even the top woman could beat a man regardless of his age and physical shape.  Rigg’s challenge was a tremendous insult to women’s tennis and female tennis player.  It is beyond doubt that the top male player will always (easily) beat the top female player.  The top female player probably lose to the top 300 male players ten times out of ten.  She may even have trouble beating top male collegiate players.  She would also have trouble beating the top senior players.  Bobby Riggs was none of those.  He was an old, out of shape huckster** trying to get into the limelight one last time.  King would have gained nothing for a win; if she lost, she (and women’s tennis) would be disgraced.  Naturally King said no.

Unfortunately, Margaret Court, arguably the greatest player of that generation, said yes.  Her price was $10,000.  Court was the anti-King; she was the reactionary to King’s revolutionary.  Court had no interest in equality and disdain for feminism.***  Court, was known to be a head case who cracked under pressure.  On May 13, 1973, completely unprepared for the media attention and Riggs’s trick game, Court lost so badly, the match was derisively referred to as “The Mother’s Day Massacre.”  In order to rescue the reputation of women’s tennis, King had to challenge Bobby Riggs.  On September 20, 1973 King faced Riggs in the Astrodome in Houston for a $100,000 pot, winner-take-all.  The match was a more media circus than tennis match.  No tennis match ever had as much national attention, and I do not think there has been another since.  Under this intense pressure, King demolished Riggs in straight sets.

What the match lacked in actual merit, it more than made up for in symbolic value.  Despite the fact that King beat a man completely past his prime, to a national audience, the match legitimized female athletes.  Saint Billie Jean became the unquestionable icon of women’s sports.

IV. The Next Step

Throughout the 70’s and 80’s the most visible female athletes was still limited largely to individual disciplines.  There were figure skaters (Hamil, Witt), speed skaters (Blair), gymnasts (Retton), track and field stars (Flo Jo, Jackie Joyner-Kersee), swimmer (Evans), golfers (Lopez), and of course tennis players (Navratilova Evert, Graf).  However, despite all that, there was never a break-out star in a woman’s team sport.  There were certainly great athletes, but no one who captured attention.  Even great collegiate players like Cheryl Miller basketball never got the acclaim they deserved.  Women who wanted to play professional team sports either had to go abroad or toil in obscurity–or both.  (Women’s college basketball would not get visibility until the mid-1990’s when the UConn Huskies went undefeated en route to the NCAA title, begat a powerhouse dynasty, and created a famous and compelling rivalry with the other juggernaut of collegiate women’s basketball, the Tennessee Lady Vols.)

In 1991 the United States National Women’s Soccer Team went to China to compete in the first Women’s World Cup.  Led by Michelle Akers, the greatest female football player of all time, the United States won the tournament, beating arch-rivals Norway in the final.  Sit with that for a moment.  The United States won a World Cup.  Before 1994.  In football.  The game that the rest of the world loves, but Americans largely ignored for decades. When the women returned from China they received… nothing.  No hero’s welcome.  No media attention.  No one knew.  In fairness, most of the world ignores women’s football, but their teams did not win.

Ironically, the reason why the United States was so successful in the 90’s is the reason why the men failed for so long.  The rest of the world simply has done a better job of preparing young boys to become skilled soccer players.  The top American men go through the collegiate system, which, in comparison to the rest of the world, produces second-rate players.  College soccer is no equal to the Ajax Academy or La Masia.  Most of the rest of the world does not have any footballing structure for girls–in some places (like Brazil) girls are actively discouraged from playing football, sometimes with beatings.  In the United States however, the opposite is true; girls are encouraged to play football in leagues and in school.  It is probably the most popular girl’s sport.  Many parents see an athletic scholarship as a means to defray the cost of college, and Title IX safeguards women’s football programs.  Therefore, while college is a poor substitute for developing the men’s game in this country, it gave the American women a tremendous advantage.

Although the 1991 World Cup win did absolutely nothing for the popularity of women’s football to Americans, the team’s moment came at the 1996 Olympics, the first time women’s football would be an Olympic sport.  Because the Olympics that year were hosted by Atlanta, and it was of the utmost important to the USOC that the American team do well (i.e. win the most medals.)  As a result women’s sports, where Americans had a huge advantage over the rest of the world, were pushed like never before.  It paid off tremendously, especially in team sports.  The Magnificent 7 won the first ever American gold in the gymnastics team competition, the Women’s National Basketball Team won the gold, the Women’s National Softball Team won gold (another sport that debuted in Atlanta), and the Women’s National Soccer Team won gold.  The victories were such spectacular successes that softball, women’s basketball, and women’s football all started to plan their own leagues.  Basketball got two competing ones: the ABL and the WNBA.   Although the ABL was the better league in terms of quality, the WNBA had the money and the marketing.  The WNBA continues to drag along, despite being a money pit.  The softball league (National Pro Fastpitch) folded, was resurrected, and now plays with only four teams.  I wish both leagues luck.

After 1996, there a lot of talk about a women’s football league, but nothing came of it until 1999.  In 1999, the United States hosted the Women’s World Cup.  It was a chance for the US women to (1) build upon their Olympic success; (2) regain the World Cup title they lost in 1995; and (3) bring football to the hearts and minds of Americans, especially American girls.  Like the WTA pioneers, the US women’s team had take part in a heavy publicity blitz to fill the stadiums, afraid of what failure would mean.  Furthermore, they were up against the jingoistic (“soccer sucks!”), sexist (“who wants to see women play?”), idiotic blabber of the sports media, particularly the established guard who were very protective of so-called American sports.  The tournament was a smashing success.  The stadia were sold-out.  In a filled to capacity Rose Bowl, the US beat China on penalty kicks.

The end of the match gave women’s soccer its one truly iconic moment.  Brandi Chastain, who kicked the winning penalty, ripping off her jersey to reveal her sports bra.  The fact that this moment is so famous, is evidence of a huge double standard.  If a man had done that, no one would have blinked.  In fact, so many men did it, that it is now a punishable offense in men’s football (after Andres Iniesta scored the winning goal at the end of the 2010 World Cup final, he took of his jersey to reveal an undershirt that had a touching message about Daniel Jarque, a former Spanish player who died tragically young.  Iniesta was carded.)  In Chastain’s case, there was undercurrent of accusation: she was trying to sell women’s football by using her sexuality.  The puritanical and salacious media could not get enough of Chastain’s sports bra.  Sports Illustrated, which later named the entire team as Sportswomen of the Year, published its next issue with a picture of a shirtless Chastain on her knees in celebration.  What is most depressing about this whole incident is the resulting belief that women’s football needed to push sex to sell itself.  That match produced high drama, despite–or because of–the 0-0 scoreline.  Additionally, many of the world’s best players were on the field for that match.  The sexist reaction to Chastain’s celebration was a kick in the teeth to the sport, and Chastain was unfairly blamed.

Following the success of the Women’s World Cup, the Women’s United Soccer Association finally came into existence.  The WUSA attracted the best players from around the world.  The women’s national team did as much as they could to push the league, but they ran into the same problem that MLS faces: while Americans care about the national team (which plays sporadically), they are far less inclined to support a national league with a regular schedule.  For MLS, this is frustrating, but not completely unexpected; MLS does not attract the same quality as the top European leagues, and the clubs do not have the same history, which is one of the attractions.  For the women though, low attendance was incredibly disheartening.  Fans could see the best quality league in the world, but they stayed away because they did not want to watch women play.  WUSA suspended operations in 2003, just before the Women’s World Cup began–again in the United States because of the SARS outbreak in China.  The hope was that a successful tournament could restart the WUSA, but the United States lost in the semifinals to Germany and placed 3rd.  The publicity for the tournament was not nearly as comprehensive in 1999 because of the short notice for hosting the tournament, and because since the WUSA season had only recently ended so the National Team could not drum up the same level of grassroots support.  The United States had lost its Olympic title to the hated Norwegians in 2000.  Americans no longer knew how to cheer for the United States squad.  They no longer the dominating winners, but they were also too strong to be underdogs–the two paradigms that Americans love to root for.  For the US Women, the tournament was a failure.

In 2004, United States women’s football regained and lost its footing at the same time.  At the Athens Olympics, the United States again won the gold medal, this time over Brazil (more on them later), thereby regaining the title in one of the two important international competitions.  The victory was bittersweet; the 2004 Olympics was the last tournament for four of the five members of the United States squad’s golden generation who had been with the team since the 1991 World Cup: Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett, and Brandi Chastain.  Only Kristine Lilly played on.   (Brandi Chastain intended to but was forcibly retired by incoming coach Greg Ryan for her role in an insurrection against the previous coach April Heinrichs.  In hindsight, Ryan may have made a mistake.)  Although their retirements were expected, their departures, and especially the loss of Mia Hamm, were painful.  Since 1996, Hamm had been the face of United States Women’s Soccer, both the team and sport.  Ask the average person on the street to name an American squad member, and most likely that person would say Mia Hamm (ask them for a second name, and you might get a blank stare.)

In some ways Hamm was the perfect representative: she was beautiful, modest, and–most importantly in a sports that values goals–she was (and still is) the top international goal scorer, male or female.  In other ways however, Hamm was a horrible choice–she was painfully shy and averse to the limelight.  She adapted as best as she could, and she was a good ambassador for the sport, but it was always somewhat awkward.  This is not a knock against her; Mia Hamm was a football player.  She wanted to be known for her abilities not her celebrity.  That she was (and still is) successfully able to be the face of United States women’s football’s face despite her natural reticence speaks volumes about her character.  A far more serious problem with Hamm though was that, unlike Michelle Akers, she was not a big match player.  The farther the team got in a given tournament (and the more the spotlight shone on her) the more Hamm disappeared and disappointed.  in 1999 she begged the team manager not to make her take a penalty kick in the shootout (she did and she converted it.)  For such a prolific scorer, this is not acceptable.  I do not blame Hamm for the failures of the US Women’s Team and WUSA, but in the long run she may not have been the star that US Soccer wanted.

Following the 2004 Olympics, the United States again dominated all opposition, including new world champion Germany.  But the United States team turned out to be a paper tiger.  While the team’s traditional rivals, Norway and China, faded, new threats emerged– particularly Germany and Brazil.  The latter is a strange case.  With the important exception of China, the most prominent women’s national teams in the world tended to be Northern European and North American.  This is unsurprising as these two regions tend to have a less macho and more egalitarian approach to sports–far more so than say, for example, Latin America or the Middle East.  An added bonus for the United States, Norway, and China is that their women’s teams bring a glory than the far less successful men’s sides have yet to replicate.

Germany and Brazil did not appear overnight.  Both advanced to the latter stages of the World Cup and the Olympics prior to 2003, but they never could make that next step.  For Germany, it was simply a matter of time before they won the World Cup.  Brazil, on the other hand, was something of a surprise.  The Brazilians, for all intents and purposes, do not have a national women’s squad; they have a group of extremely talented players who come together for major tournaments and then go their separate ways.   Everything Brazil achieves is based on pure player talent.  They succeed despite, not because of unit cohesion.  Brazil’s talented squad reached final round of the last World Cup and last two Olympics.  However, their failings as a team prevents them from winning.  This is not the fault of the players, but rather by the design the unthinking, uncaring, and corrupt Brazilian Football Confederation (headed by the infamous Ricardo Teixeira.)

Brazil has produced Marta, unquestionably the world’s top female player and probable future greatest of all time.  Until Marta, female football players, even the best ones, were proficient, but not stylish–there was no female Pele, Maradona, or Cruyff.  Marta was different; she showed that women could also play the beautiful game.  Marta led the Brazil Women’s National Team’s to a 4-0 destruction of the United States in the semifinals of the 2007 World Cup–the worst loss ever inflicted on the Americans.  At 3-0, Marta scored probably the greatest goal in women’s football history.  One of her teammates kicked the ball to Marta.  Marta, facing the touchline, trapped the ball and then volleyed it over her left shoulder and around defender Tina Ellertson.  Marta then ran to her right, around Ellertson, dribbled the ball past defender Cat Whitehill (wrong-footing Whitehill and causing her to stumble), and then rocketed the ball for the goal.  Goalkeeper Briana Scurry caught the ball, but there was too much force on it, and the ball bounced out of her hands and into the goal.  Maradona himself could not have done a better job, and it was a reminder to the purist why he (or she) loves watching football.  The result devastated the United States team; their ugly post-loss infighting became public, and their coach was fired.

I was very torn about this match.  In 2007, the WUSA had already folded, and the WPS was not yet a reality.  As an American I wanted the US to reclaim the World Cup.  However, as a feminist (and a lover of beautiful football), I also rooted for Brazil because of their style.  Moreover, the Brazilians believed that a World Cup win was the only way to promote women’s football in their country–perhaps too optimistic a hope.  Alas, Germany successfully contained Marta and beat Brazil 2-0.  The next year, the Brazilians were frustrated again; they humiliated Germany in the semifinals only to lose the gold to the United States in overtime.

Despite the failings of Brazil, the 2007 World Cup and 2008 Olympics made a star out of Marta.  Arguably, she is now the star of woman’s football.  When the WPS began, the promoters did whatever it took to first bring Marta from her Swedish side Umeå IK, and then use her to promote the league (a la Pele and the NASL.)  Marta was the central player of the LA Sol, and WPS made no secret of making the Sol the flagship side.  Although the Sol dominated the regular season, it lost the play-off championship match to Sky Blue FC.  When the Sol folded, Marta moved to Santa Clara, California and FC Gold Pride.  Again Marta’s team dominated the league and this time won the championship over the Philadelphia Independence (much to the delight of WPS.)  In November 2010, Gold Pride folded.  Now WPS is left with 7 teams, none west of Chicago, and a dismal economic climate.

Regardless of the fate of the WPS, Marta will still have a career.  She has won almost everything there is save for the World Cup and the Olympics.  Marta is beautiful, Brazilian, and multilingual.  She has won a record 4 FIFA World Player of the Year Awards (and maybe a 5th next month.)  Although I cannot say for certain, she seems media-savvy.  Marta may just be the right person in the right place at the wrong time.

V. Conclusion

If the WPS folds, I cannot imagine that there will be a third league–at least not in my lifetime.  That is a shame.  Football is a universal language, and in the women’s game, America is able to offer a distinct voice.  That voice may already be losing volume; the United State team barely qualified for the 2011 World Cup.

Women’s professional sport is at a crossroads.  Although the opportunities have never been better, the public stays away.  The WNBA loses franchise after franchise and many top female basketball players have to play abroad in the off-season.  Softball was unjustly eliminated from the Olympics.  I think there may be a professional women’s hockey league, but who knows?  Even the WTA, the flagship of women’s professional sports, has faltered in the face of mounting injuries to players and a lack of recognizable players not named Williams.

Women’s professional sports have a long way to go.  As women in the workplace know all too well, professional female athletes also have to work harder for less.  Unlike in the workplace, there is no law to prevent gender bias in sustaining sports leagues.  Title IX has done wonders for women’s sport, but Title IX has its limits.  Is it inevitable that all women’s leagues will eventually fold because of lack of interest?  It would be tragic if that turned out to be true, but I fear that the inevitable answer is yes.

Footnotes:

* I want to define the term diva, because it is sorely misused in today’s society.  Today any female singer, or, far worse, any female (or gay male) celebrity with an attitude is a diva.  Diva means goddess, and it was originally applied to star operatic sopranos because they (1) played goddesses and heroic figures on stage; (2) had a tremendous amount of talent, polished by years of training that could inspire great emotions in those around them; (3) demanded complete and utter adoration from a cadre of devotees; (4) displayed larger-than-life emotion based around their own egos; and (5) had to fight their way to the top therefore proving, in an almost Darwinian manner, that they were the best of the best.  Although Suzanne Lenglen was not a singer, she fit the diva mold pioneered by the sopranos.

** True story: In 1939, Riggs bet that he would win the singles, doubles, and mixed doubles at Wimbledon.  He did and won over $100,000, which he left in a bank vault in England.  Then Britain declared war on Germany, and Riggs had to wait until the end of the war before he could return for his winnings.

*** Court had disdain for a lot of things, including homosexuality and openly gay players like Martina Navratilova.  She made her bigoted views public after she retired and became a minister.  Court was one of tennis’s top players ever, but that is the only nice thing I will ever say about Court.

Music I listened to: Helen Reddy “I Am Woman”; Odetta “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”; The Beatles “I’ll Cry Instead”; The Supremes “Save Me a Star”; Josquin des Prez “Motets à la Vierge: Secunda pars”; Peggy Lee “I Enjoy Being a Girl’: Alice Deejay “The Lonely One”; Bob Dylan “I Want You”; Miles Davis “John McLaughlin”; Carole King “Out in the Cold”; Otis Redding “That’s How Strong My Love Is”; Ofra Haza “Giving”; The Carpenters “Johnny Angel”; Louis Armstrong “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans”; Johan Sebastian Bach “Keyboard Partita #3 In A Minor, BWV 827” Gigue; The Beatles “We Can Work it Out”; Ludwig van Beethoven “String Quartet #3 in D Op 18, No 3” Presto; Ella Fitzgerald “You Do Something To Me”; Heart “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You”; Jim Croce “New York’s Not My Home”; Sarah Vaughan “That Old Black Magic”; Carole King “Believe in Humanity”; Dmitri Shostakovich “String Quartet #8 In C Minor, Op. 110” Allegretto; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart “Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551, ‘Jupiter'” Allegro vivace; John Lennon “Woman”; The Carpenters “Only Yesterday”; Johannes Brahms “Waltz in A” Moderato; Giuseppe Verdi “Rigoletto” La donna e mobile; Belle and Sebastian “Waiting for the Moon to Rise”;