“Greatness has been found”
It’s the t-shirt that has everyone talking just hours after the United States defeated Japan 2-1 in the women’s soccer gold medal match. Nations like Japan, Brazil, and (quite possibly) Canada might object to such a bold statement, but there is one group of people who cannot: American boys and girls.
Before I go any further, I want to clarify that I’ll be talking about both the men’s and women’s teams as a whole. I realize men’s Olympic competition only allows for U-23 players (with three exceptions) while the women’s competition has no age restrictions. This is not a commentary on the US Men failing to qualify for the Olympics. This is an attempt to explain why the women have achieved so much on the international while their male counterparts continue to struggle.
Let’s start with the obvious. Females in the United States have had a tremendous head start on the rest of the world in terms of athletic opportunities. The Title IX legislation has been in place for several decades while in many other nations around the world women are still treated as second class citizens. Much has been made about the story of the Japanese women’s Olympic team riding coach on their flight to London while the men rode in first class. That’s the silver medalists and defending World Cup champions we’re talking about!
But even with such a headstart, the rest of the world has caught up to and challenged the United States when it comes to international supremacy. The Canadian women’s soccer earned the first team sport medal for the North American nation since the 1930s when they won their bronze medal match against France. But before that they went toe-to-toe with the American ladies and almost came out on top. Yes, that same Canada that we Americans love to make fun of constantly.
And speaking of the 1930s, that would be the last time the United States men’s team truly contended for an international title. Back then the World Cup was in its infant stages, but it was still the last time anyone mentioned the United States in conjunction with an international soccer title. While the issue with the women’s game has been a social one, for the men the issue has always been skill. America’s most physically gifted athletes, both male and female, have ample opportunities outside of soccer when it comes to participating in sports. But while the women have the skills to compete with the best of the best in international competition in soccer, the men constantly seem to be playing catch up.
So why have things unfolded this way? Why does the United States women’s team dominate in a way that seems impossible to the men? I believe there are two reasons and they are, in my humble opinion, fundamentally connected.
First let’s travel back in time. It’s 1994 and the United States has been awarded the opportunity to host the greatest sporting event in the world. As hosts, the United States automatically qualifies for the final portion of the tournament. This is good news because once upon a time the US did not qualify for the World Cup every time it was played. The Americans earn a pretty shocking result when they defeated highly favored Colombia 2-1 thanks to Andres Escobar’s infamous own goal. But that result wasn’t enough as a 1-1 draw with Switzerland and a 1-0 defeat against Romania saw the Stars And Stripes fail to reach the knockout stage of the tournament. But the worst part was that the US uniforms were more memorable in the eyes of American children than any individual on the team, save for perhaps Alexi Lalas and his crazy red hair. American soccer hall of fame inductees like Eric Wynalda and Tony Meola played for that ’94 team, but they failed to make an impression on the youth of America.
Fast forward a mere five years to 1999 and the United States is hosting a World Cup once more; this time for the women. We all remember how this one ends. Brandi Chastain scored the winning penalty kick and proceeded to remove her jersey in one swift motion, thus capturing the imagination of Americans of all ages. Not only did the women win as the host nation, but that ’99 squad featured some of the greatest female athletes in American history including Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, and Briana Scurry. They were iconic role models inspiring American girls to pursue greatness. A handful of those girls are now celebrating an Olympic gold medal and ushering in a “golden age” of American soccer. Would that be the case if the women of 1999 had performed like the men of 1994? That’s certainly a topic for debate, but I believe that 1999 tournament had a profound effect on women’s soccer and helped propel the US to greatness.
Domestic professional leagues were born out of both tournaments. But while Major League Soccer continues to grow and develop, women’s professional soccer has seen multiple leagues open and close (sometimes almost instantly) over the last 10-12 years. There has never been a permanent home here in the US for women to earn a living playing soccer. Americans simply do not want to turn out in numbers to watch women play soccer year after year. They seem content to wait every couple of years for the next World Cup or the next Olympic tournament. Consequently, the pinnacle of achievement for aspiring female soccer players is now international glory. Young girls want to represent the Stars And Stripes on the international stage. They would like to have the opportunity to play professionally in their home nation as well, but the example set for them has come from international competition, not club play.
This is just the opposite for the men. While we’d love to see the United States win a World Cup, we are also equally (if not more) fascinated by the prospect of seeing an American player succeed at the club level. Clint Dempsey has stated a desire to play in arguably the best soccer tournament in the world: The UEFA Champions League. Michael Bradley recently completed a move to Italy’s AS Roma, a team that has failed to qualify this year but always has the potential to play on such a grand stage. For awhile there was talk that Dempsey would land at a world famous club like Arsenal. Would an American representing the United States at a club like Manchester United or Barcelona or Real Madrid would mean a lot more to aspiring male soccer players than watching the United States win a World Cup title? That is also up for debate, but I’ll take the first option.
When I first saw the US women don that t-shirt moments after their victory was official, all I could think about was how we arrived at this point. How has the United States women’s national team achieved so much in such a short amount of time while their male counterparts continue to struggle under the weight of great expectations? The more I think about it, the more I go back to 1999. I think about the path I took as a youth soccer player compared to that of girls my age who played the game as well. It all seems to come back to Brandi Chastain dropping to her knees and removing her shirt in one swift, iconic moment. It gave girls something to remember for all time; a story of greatness they’ll tell their kids and their kids’ kids about. I (somewhat confidently) speak for American males when I say that we have no such moment. We do not have a lasting memory to tell our kids and our grandkids about when we grow old. Perhaps such a moment will come, but it does seem likely to reveal itself in the next decade.
The world may take issue with that plain white t-shirt produced by Nike, but to the youth of America, both male and female, there can be no doubt that the United States women’s national team is greater than the United States men’s national team. Just like there was no doubt that we were all watching greatness in 1999.
If only Nike had produced that shirt 13 years earlier…