Why Did The USA Dominate The 2019 Women’s World Cup?

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If you told somebody ten years ago that the USA would win the world cup, you would have been laughed out of town. As anyone in the footballing world knows, America sucks at soccer. 

Except, that’s not quite the truth of the matter. While the men might not be all that the nation would hope them to be, the women are streets ahead of the rest of the world, and the gap is growing. 

On Sunday 7th July in France, the United States thrashed the Netherland 2-0 after having beaten England in the semi-final. The performance of the women’s team from the US was so other-worldly that commentators have compared their dominance to that of Usain Bolt in the 200-meter dash or Roger Federer at his peak in the mid-2000s. 

If you were to say that the USA would win the world cup ten years ago, then indeed people would have ridiculed you. But the women’s football team has dominated for a long time and has always been successful compared to their male counterparts. The question is, why?

The History Of Women’s Football In The US

Women’s football in the US has had a long run. It started becoming popular in the US in the 1970s, with clubs for women popping up all over the country. There was a stigma for men playing soccer in the US that there just wasn’t for women, allowing hundreds to enter the sport at club level and work their way up from there. 

Schools got involved too. Teachers and coaches looked out for talented women and funneled them through the clubs which developed them for the game on the professional scene. It was a network that would have made even the likes of Britain and Spain jealous, had the players been male.

Things couldn’t have been different for the men. Young boys were not encouraged to play soccer, but rather the much more brutal sport of American football. Being a jock in the US meant bulking up with steroid-induced muscle mass, hitting 250 pounds, and then charging at your enemies on the pitch, risking brain injury in the process. The idea of prancing about deftly while kicking a ball didn’t seem like a jock’s game. It was a bit like hockey. 

The women’s team benefits from all of the sports know-how, organizational structures, and competitive spirit that makes the USA the sporting powerhouse that it is today. By the time the US team hit the international stage in the mid-1990s, women’s soccer in America was mature. 

The lack of grassroots development of the game on the men’s side couldn’t be more visible. The culture in the US is such that his peers would tease the average boy wearing his soccer kit and a ball under his arm. Football was something strange and foreign: not the type of game that an American kid should play. If he were interested in his mother country at all, he’d put down the soccer ball and pick up an American football, step out onto the pitch and then use his body as a bone-crunching weapon to dominate his opponents. Soccer was just too gentle for the likes of many. 

This barbarity is what many of the current critiques of women’s football don’t see. In America, it was never the case that women were not allowed to play football: quite the opposite. A woman dressed in a football kit was perfectly acceptable from the 1970s onwards, and nobody said a thing. The real damage was done to young men who for reasons unknown to the rest of the world, were barred from the sport. Boys who did decide to get into football were teased for their interest in the game and not taken seriously by their peers or caregivers. 

The US women’s football team won the gold medal on home turf at the Atlanta games in 1996 and then went on to victory at the World Cup in 1999. The success of the team was remarkable and set the stage for two more decades of domination. The US has a system whereby coaches find young female talent and encourage it to get involved in the sport on a professional level right from an early age. The collegiate system allows girls to play soccer from an early age. Soccer is now the third most popular sport among women, beating out many of the traditional games unique to the US. 

Why Things Won’t Get Better For The Men Any Time Soon

Despite the progress of the women’s game, it’s unlikely that we’ll see any progress on the men’s front for a while. The reasons for this have changed considerably over the last decade. Attitudes towards men playing soccer have improved, but the competition from traditional sports remains. Talented sportsmen generally want to play the sports they grew up playing: American football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey. A strange and somewhat unfamiliar sport like football doesn’t have the same draw. 

There are powerful vested interest groups too who want to retain the status quo. Major league basketball, football, and baseball all wish to maintain their dominance at the top of the sports hierarchy in the US. The idea of men’s football usurping them, as it has in the rest of the world, is an extremely dangerous notion indeed. 

Women’s Football Isn’t Accepted In The Rest Of The World

The other reason for the domination of the US women’s team is the lack of acceptance of women’s football in the rest of the world, at least historically. The lack of interest in building excellent female national squads means that the majority of European teams don’t pose a serious challenge to the US. Scouts don’t go out of their way to find talented young girls through the school system and nurture them for playing on the big stage. The size of the professional women’s football market in most European countries doesn’t make it worthwhile. 

The pay by phone betting market, however, took off during the women’s world cup this year. For the first time, there was enough engagement to make all kinds of betting associated with the men’s game more lucrative. People all over the world wanted to vote with their cash and put money on either the success or the failure of people in the women’s team. It won’t surprise many of you to learn that the US was the odds-on favorite to win. But it was surprising just how much betting took place. It was a good sign. 

US Domination Won’t Last Forever

The rest of the world is playing catchup to the US, and their dominance won’t last long. For ideologues on the left of the political spectrum, the success of the women’s game is paramount. These ideologues are pushing women’s football in England, France, and Spain, and it’s making a difference on the ground. People are more accepting of young girls who want to play football, and more people are becoming interested in the women’s game, pushing up advertising revenues. 

The big European football clubs are also beginning to understand that women’s football is becoming more than a social justice crusade: it’s big money too. There are plenty of people who are willing to watch the women’s game, and the higher profile that it becomes, the more money they’re ready to plow into it. Real Madrid recently launched its own women’s team, and Manchester United did last summer. 

It seems only a matter of time; therefore, before the women’s game in Europe develops sufficiently to take on the likes of the US. Europe might not topple the US in 2023, but it’s sure to give the US women a tougher challenge than they’ve faced in a long time. 

Interest in the tournament in Europe was enormous. More people than ever tuned in to watch the finals, hoping to see their women representing their country win.

What matters is money. If Europe and the rest of the world can find a way of making women’s soccer lucrative, then the game has a much higher chance of becoming successful over the rest of the world. There’s a sense that the things that held back the women’s game in the past in Europe are now mostly behind us. All that’s left to do now is spend some time gaining interest in the sport. It’ll start with efforts by progressive pubs and broadcasters who will want to make a bit of money from the advertising. But it could eventually become a part of the culture which is just as important as the men’s game. 

For countries like England with notoriously lousy luck at World Cup finals, having two shots of victory every four years is better odds than having just one. If the men don’t win, then there’s always the women’s tournament to look forward to the following year. 

So now you know why the USA dominates women’s football, you also know that it probably won’t last. It will take time, but eventually, genuine rivals will emerge on the international scene. 

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