During the Canadian Women’s National Team’s bronze medal run in 2012 I was 14. It was the first time i’d really watched women’s soccer and I absolutely adored the Canadian team. So when Karina Leblanc was announced to be appearing to do a goalkeeping clinic near me I was all over that. So my dad and I went. As I got ready I noticed something was a little different from previous events like this i’d attended. There was only one other dude there. It was at this point that I realized that other young men were perhaps not as invested in the fortunes of the CWNT as me.
With a friendly against the U.S coming up on Thursday (why it’s on a Thursday I have no idea, they hate money I guess) I thought now might be a good time to express why I am a fan. Now I don’t know what the consensus on women’s soccer is here, maybe we all already agree it’s great in which case i’ll meet you in the comments and we can all take turns congratulating each other on being correct. Nevertheless I think back to that field with just one other guy and I figure it’s probably worth writing this.
Now of course of course women’s sports provides positive (and sometimes not so positive) role models to young girls, and that’s very important but i’ve never really experienced what it’s like to be a young girl so consider this the case for women’s soccer from the male perspective (and of course that’s not to say that boys can’t look up to women and vice versa).
First let us consider the most commonly sighted reason that people don’t want to watch women’s soccer. That being that women aren’t as strong or as fast as men and therefore, the argument goes, the football’s rubbish. Every so often there’s a story about some women’s national team getting thrashed by a team of 15 year old boys and that’s often held up as evidence that women’s football isn’t worth watching. Well it is true (when taking a broad statistical average to which there are of course outliers and exceptions) that women aren’t as strong or as fast as men. Even elite female athletes can’t really come close to the physical feats that men can accomplish. So female athletes cannot pull off the same physical feats as men. But I think it would be extremely reductionist to say we only watch sports for physical feats. In addition to seeing what the limits of the human body being pushed there’s also drama, moments of inspiration, and maybe a bit of latent nationalism.
There’s certainly no shortage of drama in women’s soccer. Anybody who followed the women’s national team during their 2012 olympic run will be well aware of this. In the semi finals the Canadians came up against perennial women’s soccer powerhouse the U.S.A, classic David vs Goliath story. For added drama the match took place at Old Trafford. It was a back and forth match. Canada took the lead through national treasure Christine Sinclair. Meghan Rapinoe then quickly equalized for the states. Not to be deterred Sinclair got on the end of a cross to head home her second and put Canada, massive underdogs, into the lead for the second time! But it didn’t last long as once again Rapinoe scored for the states. At this point you had to feel that Canada, despite putting up a good fight, was out of as. But those people were proved wrong as Sinclair scored her third goal to complete the hat trick. It seemed that maybe, just maybe Canada would pull off the upset. But then a villain entered from stage left in the form of Norwegian referee Christina Pedersen. Pedersen penalized Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod for holding onto the ball for to long (a rule which had not been enforced in over a decade). On the ensuing free kick Pederson called a very marginal hand ball and awarded the states a penalty. Abby Wambach converted the penalty and the states went on to win in extra time. Canadians were incensed; our plucky underdog story had been stolen from us, replaced with a martyr story. Sinclair gave an interview after the game in which she expressed the way we all felt "We feel like we didn't lose, we feel like it was taken from us."
The fall out from this game spilled over into the non women’s soccer world. I have a really distinct memory of a guy in the southsiders section who, seeing he was on the big screen at B.C Place, quickly produced a regular 8x11 piece of paper with the message “Norwegian refs=Corrupt” printed on it. Clearly the game and the drama that unfolded resinated with people. It didn’t matter if the players weren’t as physically strong as their male counterparts because the emotions that the game produced were universal. If you’re not watching because the players are women then this is the sort of thing you’re missing out on.
As for moments of inspiration, well there’s plenty of those on offer as well. Here’s Irish player Stephanie Roche’s Puskas award nominated goal as an example:
I’d argue that soccer is one of the sports where the women’s game is the strongest because guile and cunning can often overcome size and strength. Point being that moments of inspiration happen in the women’s game as well.
Then there’s latent nationalism. It’s no secret that soccer, and sport in general is a vehicle for nationalism. “War minus the shooting” Orwell said. This can lead to some nasty scenes, Brawls between ultras in England, Arkan’s Tigers in Serbia, and the Football War between Honduras and El Salvador. are all examples of the dark side of nationalism in sport. This, understandably, can put a lot of people off. My Dad, for example, was muttering about jingoism for 15 minutes when he was made to help hold up a giant Canadian flag at a Whitecaps game. But the fact of the matter is that there’s a part of everyone, a carry over from a our distant tribal ancestors, that longs to clash with and vanquish the enemy. Sports can be a way to satiate these desires in a safer and healthier way. I think for Canadians the women’s national team provides us a unique opportunity to do that. Sure we’re great at sports like hockey, or skiing which are only played at a high level by a few countries, but Soccer is the world’s game and thus a greater opportunity then any other sport for a nation to show what they’re made of. On the men’s side of the equation we’ve always been faced with disappointment at best and humiliation at worst. The women’s team on the other hand are successful but, and here’s the key, not too successful. That may sound counter intuitive but it means that you can see some wins while still credibly feeling like you’re supporting a plucky underdog. This dynamic makes the women’s team infinitely lovable.
So that’s why the CWNT is a good source of national pride. But why do we need national pride? Well Canadians as a whole have a bit of a streak of self loathing. We’re generally a lot less eager to declare our love for our country then our neighbours to the south. Now that’s not entirely a bad thing as some American patriotism can be quite obnoxious and cringe worthy, but it’s almost conspicuously absent in Canada. The reason for this is that Canada has a complicated history. We want to be an open and multicultural society but our history is marred with failures in that respect. With growing public knowledge of atrocities like residential schools people understandably feel a bit uncomfortable celebrating Canada. So how can we fill that need to take some pride in our country while not overcorrecting and falling into jingoism? Well a simple solution to me seems to be supporting our national sports teams, teams that represent all of us. To me, no team in Canada right now does this with more pride, passion, and poise then the women’s soccer team. Supporting them is a chance to be proud of your country and support a group of women who fight for the shirt without any of the ego or self aggrandizement of their male counterparts. They are a team we can all be proud of. They play the Americans, seven o’clock: Thursday at B.C Place. I suggest you watch them.