Over the past month, American sports fans had the privilege of seeing another fiery battle in the greatest rivalry in soccer: The U.S. men’s national team vs. the U.S. women’s national team!
At least, that’s what you’d think just happened from trying to talk soccer in bars, or reading online comment sections and forums. In doing both over the past month, I began to feel like something of a unicorn: A rare specimen of fan who likes and roots for both the men and the women (Hooray to the women, it must of course be added, for winning another World Cup last week!).
I feel like a rarity because as the Women’s World Cup wore on, it became harder and harder to find anyone who could resist the temptation to make the whole thing into a raging battle of the sexes. As I’m sure everyone knows, the U.S. women are the most successful international team in their game, while the U.S. men are not - a trip to the World Cup knockout rounds is generally considered a good result for the men, and of course they famously failed to qualify for the 2018 Cup. So some fans of the women’s team love to throw out insults about the men’s results and “failures” on the world stage, and they even have a phrase they can’t seem to resist regurgitating: “The women are better than the men!”
Then there are the men’s fans who roar insults about the quality of the women’s game, or about the looks or lifestyles of some of the players, or respond to the “women are better” claim by noting a famous scrimmage where the women lost to a boys U15 academy team.
(From here on, I will use “men” and “women” to refer to the fans, and the standard abbreviations “MNT” and “WNT” to refer specifically to the “Men’s/Women’s National Teams”).
I became and remain convinced that there were American men rooting hard against the WNT out of spite, and I’m equally certain that for some women, the day the MNT was eliminated from contention for their 2018 Cup was a more glorious day than when the WNT won their 2019 title.
I can’t print the full expression of my distaste for both attitudes in a family newspaper, so I’ll just go with this: Isn’t that stupid?
Although I know very little about some of the sports in the Olympics (hello badminton, curling, rhythmic gymnastics...), I always find it easy to find a rooting interest: the players, athletes, badminton practitioners, curlists, rhythmic gymnasticators (etc., etc., etc.) representing the United States. It’s easy because we have something in common, and I ignore any and all political disagreements or issues of personality. To digress only briefly to “my” sport, there is a certain American distance runner whose politics diverge from mine, and who I think is a bit of a weirdo, but I sure rooted hard for him when he won a silver and bronze medals in the two most recent Summer Games, and I hope he moves up to gold in 2020.
And so it is, for me, with the two national soccer teams. I want them both to win every game they play. I like that the WNT just won their World Cup, and I hope, no matter how long the odds may be, that the MNT one day wins theirs. Tiny little Croatia reached the final in 2018, so anything can happen! But you won’t find me rooting against either team. Those are our boys out there! Or our girls, as the case may be! They all have my rooting support!
So far as it goes, I don’t think any serious person really believes “the women are better than the men” in the most literal sense of arguing that the WNT would beat the MNT if they played each other. Hopefully, no one needs to have the how’s and why’s of that explained to them (If you do, find me at Norman Quack’s). But they don’t play each other, and so that is completely irrelevant to my enjoyment of either team’s games, and it should be irrelevant to everyone else’s. They compete in different divisions, there are trophies for victory in both, and I want the red, white and blue teams to win all the trophies they can.
And it can only be in America, with our stultified and disturbing wrathful national discourse, that such pointless comparisons are even drawn. I bet Norwegians don’t say, “kvinnene er bedre enn mennene.” The French men won the 2018 Cup while the French women went out in the 2019 quarterfinals, but I haven’t heard or read anyone saying the opposite phrase, “les hommes sont meilleurs que les femmes.” The English men and women both finished fourth in their respective tournaments, and though I haven’t heard, “by Jove! Our national representatives of both gender expressions have bestowed equal honour upon our glorious nation,” that would at least be fun to hear. Nor does this nonsense seem to occur with frequency in any other sport: We didn’t hear anyone at the 2018 Winter Olympics rage about the men’s curling team (gold medal winners) being “better than” the women’s team (eighth-place).
Some of the American soccer wrath, of course, stems from people picking sides in the WNT’s recent battle to receive “equal pay” as the MNT, but here again, the discourse is at a pretty low level. Women puke sarcasm: “I didn’t even know we had a men’s team!” Men deride the ability of the WNT (and, not for nothing, of that U15 academy team by extension): “Why should the women get the same pay if they can’t beat a bunch of high school boys?!” Nobody, not even certain prominent candidates for President who have weighed in on the issue, typically provides facts and figures, relying instead on emotion or vague references to nonspecific “a fraction of...” statements. Did you know every number is “a fraction of” every other?
It’s undoubtedly a more complicated issue than anyone makes it out to be and one which almost nobody can argue intelligently about. If you’d like to do so, there’s a great article on the Washington Post website (“Are U.S. women’s soccer players really earning less than men?” July 8) that lays out all the numbers. It turns out, pay structures for the two teams vary (the U.S. Soccer Federation pays an annual salary to the WNT but not to the MNT, whose players get the bulk of their cash through their better established and more lucrative club leagues), and a lot of the disparity can be traced to differences in tournament bonus payouts determined by FIFA, the international federation, rather than the U.S. federation. This latter difference derives from the greater revenue generated by men’s soccer generally, though in this country at least, the WNT sometimes outdraws the MNT depending on what metric you use. There again, the WaPo article shows that revenue comparisons are harder to interpret than the onesided blog rants people usually cite in Facebook arguments.
As WaPo also points out, the WNT’s pay has vastly increased since the pay battle began, thanks to a greatly improved collective bargaining agreement negotiated two years ago. But I don’t really care to argue the issue, intelligently or otherwise, and it’s not just because none of the money goes into my checking account. Let the courts, or the negotiators, or the markets, or Joe Pesci or Tom Brady or Liza Minnelli decide who gets paid what, and I’ll just keep rooting for both of my favorite national teams, whenever and wherever they may play: “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!”
Brad O’Neil is the sports editor of the Forest Lake Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.