“We are just as good“ - American Girls love Soccer

April 20, 2011
Petra Krimphove

By Petra Krimphove

The World Cup victory of the US women’s team in 1999 triggered a virtual soccer boom among children. Today girls play soccer in the US—in the media, however, the sport has made a disappearance act.

For a long nine and a half minutes the little girl in the soccer tricot does nothing else but keeping a ball up in the air with both her feet. Always alternating—right, left, right, left—her eyes firmly focused on the ball which does not even touch the ground. More than 6000 times, is Renae Blevins’ record.  Her proud dad—“soccer dad 1”—has taped the exercises of his daughter and posted the video on UTube. “Marta is her heroine” he writes “and nobody is happier than her, that there’s a women’s professional league.”

The eight year old Renae on the video is only one of many girls in the USA burning with soccer fever. Football, baseball, basketball, ice-hockey—men dominate in these all-American sports, role models for the female up and coming athletes are rare. In soccer the story is quite different: Since the US National Women’s Team won against China in the World Cup end game almost twelve years ago, girls here have been dreaming of a career as professional player. Their role models: The Brazilian Marta Vieira da Silva, the US icon Mia Hamm, and the German Birgit Prinz.

The Euphoria in the Media has Vanished

It was an extremely close victory on that hot July 10, 1993 at the Rose Bowl Field in Pasadena, California. Yet it provided for an up to then unknown soccer euphoria in the US. 90,185 spectators—among them President Bill Clinton—jubilantly jumped from their seats when Brandi Chastain plunged the decisive ball into the net during the penalty shootout. The US women were World Soccer Champions. 40 million people celebrated in front of their TV sets. It was and still is the largest audience watching a women’s sports event in US history.

But shortly before the women’s World Cup 2011 in Germany, very little of the former soccer enthusiasm can be felt in the media. Women’s soccer was not able to gain recognition as a sport that gets covered by the media in the long term, even though the national team was able to sustain its winning streak. In the global FIFA-rating the US women’s team is still on rank 4, followed by Germany. The Americans won two World Cups (1991 and 1999), three Olympic gold medals (1996, 2004, and 2008), and the prestigious Algarve Cup seven times.

Nevertheless: professional women’s soccer barely attracts any viewers. When the Women’s Professional League is playing, the audience averages 3,500 in stadiums. The TV channel “Fox-Soccer“ broadcasts one game per week on national television, the number of viewers is modest—too low to achieve any noteworthy income via television rights and sponsors. Many clubs in the league incur losses. Last season three clubs folded, in 2011 only six teams are playing, the future of the women’s league is uncertain.

Self-Confidence for Young Girls

How different was the mood in 1999. All of a sudden women’s soccer was cool. In particular Mia Hamm became a national icon: athletic, technically brilliant, personable, and on top of it attractive—all that made her the ideal figurehead for American women’s soccer, even media darling, and an important role model for young girls.

“Because of Hamm, young girls grow up believing that they can be more successful at soccer than men, not less successful, a rarity in team sports.“ wrote Jere Longman in the New York Times on the occasion of Hamm’s farewell to professional sports in the year 2004. For Hamm and her team, her sport has always been more than the game on the turf: They wanted to be role models for the young girls who adored them, to give them self-confidence. “It was most important for us to see the next generation of girls grow up strong and self-confident. They are supposed to believe that they can achieve everything in their life,” said Hamm‘s fellow team member Julie Foudy Jahre.

Not just a Knock-Off of the Men’s World

The country took its women’s team serious and celebrated enthusiastically. Especially for girls, this was a new, liberating experience. Soccer became their sports of choice. And just because soccer is not part of the US national sports culture like in South America or Europe, the girls as it were entered new territory. On the other hand this made it difficult to get any attention in the male dominated US sports culture—and attention you need to gain commercial success. In terms of sports this, however, also provides the opportunity to recreate women’s soccer not merely as the lame knock-off of the men’s world.

Soccer, a man’s game, that seems absolutely absurd to American girls. “As a girl you can play soccer just as well as boys,” says Rebecca Ebling full of conviction. “It is physical and fun.” For 14 years, the 19 year old has played passionately and with success in various teams in Naperville/Illinois, last in the women’s league of her home state and her High School Team, with which she won the regional championship.

No Special Rules for Girls

What fascinates her about soccer? “It is one of the few types of sport that doesn’t have special rules for girls” says Rebecca. American Football is considered to be too brutal for girls and appropriately a no-no. They have to play softball instead of baseball—with larger balls and on smaller ballparks. And the rules in women’s ice-hockey prohibit them a similarly strong physical exertion as is standard for men. But soccer is soccer—no matter whether girls or boys play. And almost nobody in the US would deny that girls can be just as good at the ball as boys.

The soccer boom with American girls also owes to politics: 1972—the year Mia Hamm was born—the so-called “Title IX” came into effect, which inter alia was meant to end the discrimination of girls and young women in sports classes at schools and colleges. Traditionally they had been more interested in building status-enhancing football teams. With “Title IX” all educational institutions receiving public funding were obliged to offer the same conditions for boys and girls—in class but also in sports, a measure which proved to be effective.

In the meantime, at high schools alone, more than 337,000 girls are playing soccer; over 10,500 schools have girls’ teams. There are about 700 women teams at colleges and universities. In addition, an estimated 1.5 million girls play in clubs. Their mothers—the soccer-moms—have already become a cliché in the US: in their minivans, they drive the next generation of players from ball court to ball court and cheer them on from the sidelines.

Especially in the American middle class, soccer is a favorite type of sports for the next generation and doesn’t come with that working-class image at all, which it has at times in Europe. Maybe, the gender stereotypes are less pronounced in US soccer than in traditional soccer cultures. In Europe and South America the game emerged from the working class und the kick on the street and is closely associated with the classic gender stereotype. For a long time, there was no place for girls at the game, nor as onlookers. In the US on the other hand, the game was more or less imported by the middle class. And they supported the girls’ soccer fever right from the start.

And the Shock-Experience Came in Germany

Discrimination as a girl on the soccer field—the eleven year old Kira Lee-Genzel from Washington D.C. experienced that only in Germany. In those summers that she spent with her family in the home country of her mother and where she attended soccer camps. The first incident was a bit of a shock: Kira who has been playing soccer since she was four years old and who is considered to be a great talent, was placed with the much younger boys by the German trainer. He didn’t believe that she was able to keep up with boys of her age. But it was not only a matter of convincing the trainer: “In Germany it is much more difficult to play with boys,” says Kira. “They don’t accept that girls can play well too.”  This changed, however, over time: “After I had scored goals they realized, that I was good,” she remembers.

Barbie Plays Soccer too

The fact that women like Mia Hamm, who played in the national team of 1999, get praised for their model-good looks by the media made sure of one more thing: Soccer was never considered to be unfeminine, a sport for “viragoes” or lesbian women in the US. Such a stigmatization is also real news for Rebecca Ebling: “Soccer is considered to be an athletic but not a male sport.” She explains that in her team there were all types of girls, from the beauty queen to boyish type.

The successful “Soccer Barbie” in tightly cut purple tricot and long golden hair communicates, that soccer and femininity are not mutually exclusive—not an irrelevant argument in the US where the fixation on female gender stereotypes is much stronger than in Germany.

Naturally this doesn’t mean, that there aren’t any lesbian women in American soccer: The Swede Pia Sundhage, trainer of the US national team for example publicly announced being homosexual in 2010—without any repercussions. End of 2010, Lisa Howe, trainer at the Christian Belmont University in the conservative Federal State of Tennessee in the southern United States had a different experience. When she announced that her female partner was expecting a baby, Howe got the boot from the university administration.

The World Cup as Litmus Test

For the first time after 14 years, Rebecca stashed her soccer shoes in a box to fully focus on her studies in Wisconsin. But naturally, she will follow the games of the Soccer World Cup on TV. The tournament will reveal the real status of the still young soccer culture in the United States. Will the national team be able to once again inspire a similar enthusiasm as in 1999? Currently, nothing of that sort can be noticed, for one reason because great stars such as Mia Hamm are missing—and because the World Cup is held in the distant Germany. But if the US team should be successful, that might change rapidly with each and every victory. After all, the United States love nothing more than a winner.

Petra Krimphove is a journalist in Washington, DC and reports for German media and organizations about the many fascinating and also contradictory aspects of American society, its organizations, places and people. She is author of the book Mother-Daugther-Relationships in the US American Literature" (1995)

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