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While most of us weren't paying attention, the U.S. women's national soccer team easily qualified for its eighth consecutive World Cup. Were this team of another gender, the nation would be over the moon. World Cup qualifying doesn't come quite as smoothly for the American men as it does for the women.
So they're in, which really isn't news, because they're always in, having never missed a World Cup going all the way back to the first one in 1991, which they won. They famously triumphed again in 1999 in a red, white and blue sports spectacle that turned into a cultural awakening, inspiring a generation of women who are now beginning to assume their rightful place in society — which has the distinct look of slowly but surely taking over the world.
And they won again the last time the Women's World Cup was played in 2015, so they are the defending champions heading next summer to France, where, led by veterans Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn, they will be favored to win their fourth World Cup. Germany has won two; Norway and Japan have each won one.
That pretty much sums up the sports side of this story. But this being the U.S. women's national soccer team, there's always going to be more. This team is perennially in the middle of some issue or another that matters to girls and women not just in the United States but around the world. And it's always on the right side of that issue.
Four years ago in Canada, the subject was turf. FIFA, the non-profit international federation whose mission is to grow and promote the game of soccer worldwide, refused to let the women play on natural grass, which is of course what the men play on. They insisted the women play on artificial turf, considered by elite players to be an inferior surface that can cause more injuries than grass.
When Abby Wambach and 80 other players from 13 nations sued on the basis of gender discrimination, FIFA not only fought the suit, which eventually was withdrawn in the face of mounting legal hurdles, it also threatened retaliation against the players.
Nothing encourages little girls around the world to take up soccer like seeing their heroes being treated as second-class citizens by the leaders of the sport.
Four years later, the Old Boys Club known as FIFA is at it again. This time, they're back to their favorite issue: vastly unequal prize money.
The other day, SI.com and Fox Sports TV broke the news that FIFA was going to double the total prize money for the 24 Women's World Cup teams from $15 million in 2015 to $30 million in 2019.
That sounds like good news until you consider that FIFA has pledged to give $440 million to the 32 teams playing in the men's World Cup in 2022 in Qatar.
"I think they're probably looking for pats on the back for the increase, and they're not getting any from here," Rapinoe told SI.com. "Until they're going to take meaningful steps to truly show they're caring about the women's game in a sort of deeper way, it's like, I don't know, $15 million is nothing to them. ... It's a significant amount of money, I get that, for the teams, but where are they even pulling this number from? If they just want to sort of arbitrarily do it, they could increase it by $100 million and wouldn't miss it."
She's right about that. FIFA has the money. This summer's men's World Cup generated $6.1 billion in revenue for FIFA.
As a comparison, the best the Women's World Cup has ever done is about $73 million in revenue in 2011 in Germany. But those numbers should not matter to FIFA because it is not a for-profit company. It is designed not to make decisions based on who's bringing in the money, but rather on how to help the game grow, and girls and women are still an untapped market for FIFA in many places around the world.
By giving women an international stage to showcase their game, FIFA believes it is doing well. But next year, unbelievably, it scheduled the final of the Women's World Cup on the same day (July 7) as two big men's events, the Copa America final and the CONCACAF Gold Cup final. That means, in many nations around the world, the crown jewel of women's soccer will be just the third biggest story in the sport on that day.
FIFA has the power to do anything in soccer, including changing the dates of a couple of games. It must do that in this case.
"In the way that they truly care about the men's game," Rapinoe said, "they don't truly care about the women's game."
That's a U.S. women's soccer player doing what she does best: winning games, giving her opinion, causing some trouble, making us think.
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