Much to the chagrin and disdain of many my good American colleagues at this publication, I am a soccer fan. I love the beautiful game, its mesmerizing stars like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Renaldo. I appreciate the tactics, and even the ties, ties, ties. So this week I decided to give the women’s World Cup a try. I regret to inform you good readers that it is awful, and bordering on unwatchable.
At first I couldn’t quite tell what the problem was. There were 22 people kicking a ball around with exceptional skill, tight triangle passing, counter attacks, everything I usually look for in a good fixture. So why was I bored out of my mind watching these games I tried to endure?
The first answers that came to me were basic ones: speed and quickness. The most exciting moments in a soccer match are often the ones where a player breaks away from defenders, or chases down a long pass with incredible speed to create a scoring chance. Time and again as I watched the women’s matches, I’d see the ball, ready to be caught up to, sitting there for an opportunity, and it just sat there, with me yelling at the TV, “Go get it, catch up to it!”
The moments of electrifying speed that make men’s soccer a worthwhile enterprise instead of a low-scoring dirge just don’t happen. It’s like watching soccer in slow motion. It almost seems as though the women’s game would be better if they made the field smaller. The space that 11 men cover with apt acuity feels like an ocean that swallows the women’s game.
Now, to be fair, I also feel this way most of the time watching Major League Soccer in the United States, where mediocre North and South American players and the occasional aging ex-European superstar attempt to approximate a compelling soccer match. But even the measly efforts of the MLS occasionally produce a moment of compelling skill or strategy. The goals produced in the women’s World Cup more often feel like lazy mistakes made by drunk Foosball players.
The overall quality of play is just one of the problems. Another is the utter lack of parity. Does anyone really need or want to watch the U.S. women’s team beat Thailand 13-0? I mean, maybe Germany or England, but Thailand? I felt like Apollo Creed’s trainer in Rocky IV: “Throw the g-d d-mned towel!” I cringed, I yawned, I watched Bomani Jones and Pablo Torre talk about the NBA on my iPad.
Now listen: I consider myself a feminist. I enjoy women’s sports like tennis and gymnastics, even figure skating a little bit, but soccer just doesn’t translate. In the three sports listed above, women bring a different and unique dimension to the game. In tennis, the lack of power creates more interesting exchanges. In gymnastics and figure skating women do things that men can’t. In these sports something unique and compelling is created. It’s not simply a slower, duller version of the men’s game.
Before people deride my idea that women’s soccer should be played on a smaller field, consider that in tennis grand slams women play best of three sets, not best of five. Consider that in women’s golf women play from shorter tees. Consider that arguments have been made to lower to the hoop for women’s basketball, and that they already play with a smaller ball than is used in the NBA.
Many people, including supposed presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand, have suggested that the U.S. women’s national team deserves to be paid the same as the men’s team. Paid for what? For nobody to watch? Male and female athletes make ungodly sums of money when they create entertainment that pays their salary. That’s not happening in the women’s World Cup. There is no value to be passed along.
Anyway, here's Orrin Hatch calling for equal pay for the U.S. women's national soccer team.
"I trust that the U.S. Soccer Federation and other policymakers will once and for all end this two-tiered, gender-based structure that has unfairly discriminated against female athletes." pic.twitter.com/xZvHA6CgEV
— Jennifer Bendery (@jbendery) June 12, 2019
Lack of interest in the women’s World Cup is not misogyny, it’s boredom. The version of soccer being played just is not compelling. That could change. A new form could be created for women, as has been created in other sports.
But for now, it just looks like smaller, weaker, slower players miming the beautiful game that men execute at miraculous levels. That’s not going to capture the imagination of the world. And we should stop pretending that it should.