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When the U.S. team took the field against Thailand in the opening match of the FIFA Women’s World Cup earlier this month, they were battling on two fronts: on the pitch and in the courtroom.
The outcome of that first contest — a historically lopsided 13-0 drubbing by the Americans — hinted at the resolve of the 28 women who are suing the sport’s U.S. governing body over unequal pay and working conditions.
Journalist Gemma Clarke says this is just the latest chapter in a long history of women fighting for equal footing in the soccer world.
In her new book, SoccerWomen: The Icons, Rebels, Stars, and Trailblazers Who Transformed the Beautiful Game, Clarke chronicles the trials and tribulations of the women who have fought for more than a century to earn the right to play the game. And she argues that the current struggle for equal treatment is about much more than soccer.
American soccer is a perfect microcosm of the pay gap: here you have a women’s team who outperform the men, who are more popular and more famous, who attract more viewers, and who still don’t get paid as much. It’s not even as though they’re asking for more, just to be paid equally. This is how women’s soccer has become integral to the fight for gender equality.
Women’s soccer transcends sport; from the beginning, it has been essential to the struggle for female selfhood.
While the U.S. men’s team failed even to qualify for the last Men’s World Cup, the women’s team has dominated the modern era. Winners of three of the seven World Cups since the women’s championship began in 1991, they entered this year’s tournament a favorite to repeat. The team is so stacked with talent that two-time world player of the year Carli Lloyd isn’t even a starter.
After their dominating win over Thailand, the U.S. women faced criticism from some commentators for not taking it easy on their outmatched opponents. In their next game, a somewhat harder-fought 3-0 win over Chile, Lloyd celebrated one of her two goals with a tongue-in-cheek golf clap.
Carli Lloyd, still a scorer of top-class #FIFAWWC goals
— Planet Fútbol (@si_soccer) June 16, 2019
The lawsuit, filed in March, seeks to force the U.S Soccer Federation to address the “institutionalized gender discrimination” that results in better pay, travel, medical care and other treatment for the men’s team — despite the women bringing in more revenue in recent years.
Those problems extend beyond the United States. Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, reigning winner of the Ballon d’Or as the world’s best player, left her national team over complaints about the treatment of female athletes. Although the Norwegian women’s and men’s teams are now paid the same, she’s sitting out this year’s World Cup.
As if to make her point even clearer, after Hegerberg accepted the award, the male presenter jokingly asked if she could twerk. She replied with a blunt “no” before delivering a speech calling on girls to “believe in yourself.”
With the World Cup in full swing, we talk with Clarke about the book she calls “a love letter to soccer in its purest form” and where the sport — and the fight for equality — will go from here.
Text by Orion Donovan-Smith. Produced by Gabrielle Healy.
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