The Women’s World Cup has proven to be a sparkling oasis amidst the most arid section of the sports calendar. The tournament provided a series of non-stop thrills, culminating with Japan’s heart-palpitating final victory against the US, winning 3-1 on penalty kicks after extra-time finished with the game tied at 2.
Star US player Abby Wambach is no doubt hurting, but I hope the forward with the skull of steel realizes that she was absolutely correct when she said last week, “It’s gonna be awesome.” Normally, I dislike direct comparisons of women and men’s sports, but with far less players taking dives and far more players scoring goals, this World Cup proved to be profoundly more entertaining than the men’s variety last summer.
Beyond our media’s laser focus on the US team alone – which didn’t even begin until the squad started to soar - we were introduced to a new generation of remarkable players from across the globe. The dazzling Marta of Brazil and Japan’s Homare Sawa come to mind as players who left your jaw on the ground. But in a fitting coda for the beautiful game, the final cheers must go not to an individual player, but to Japan’s team, which employed a tactical genius spliced with a near-Brazilian flair that was a joy to behold.
Riding a wave of emotion following last March’s horrific earthquake and subsequent nuclear leaks, Japan’s team welcomed the opportunity to provide some needed uplift for their country. They even passed around photos of victims of the nuclear spill before matches.Their teamwork on the field represented this terrific unity.
As a volunteer coach myself, I love the quote by Japan’s Coach Sasaki who said of his vertically challenged team (average height: 5’4”),“I think you know that the Japanese players are not tall, but our focus is on ball control and good passes, good combinations. We have good team spirit, and that leads to good team performance.” It is also satisfying to see sports fans that normally dismiss women’s sports with a Pavlovian reflex become Women’s World Cup addicts.
Yes, it’s been a marvelous month for soccer but any assessment of this triumph would be incomplete without taking stock of the raunch culture that stalked the tournament’s every step. In the sporting context, “raunch culture” is when women athletes buy into the idea that it’s somehow empowering to display their naked bodies for men’s magazines. These great athletes put themselves before the photographers’ lens in positions both seductive and prone.
They claim that they are not only promoting their sport but also proving to the world that their attractiveness and (straight) sexuality is not to be questioned. After posing for their country’s edition of Playboy, five players were kicked off the German under-20 World Cup team. Player Kristina Gessat made plain her motivation, saying, "With these photos, we want to disprove the cliché that all female footballers are butch.”
As the Huffington Post, which promotes raunch culture across their supposedly progressive site wrote, “Whether or not there's any backlash over these photos remains to be seen, but one thing's for sure: they definitely helped spread the word on the Women's World Cup.” Maxim couldn’t have written it any better. [Full disclosure: I used to write at the Huffington Post but no longer work on Arianna's farm.]
Then three members of the French team also posed topless under the headline: "Is this how we should show up before you come to our games?" They said they did it “to generate some discussion.” This isn’t “empowerment.” It’s commerce.
Every scrap of academic research shows that conditioning viewers to see women athletes as sex symbols comes at the expense of interest in the games themselves. As Mary Jo Kane of the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center says, “For a female athlete, stripping down might sell magazines, but it won’t sell your sport.”
But beyond the raunch culture and rancid sexism, the intense interest and athletic élan on display show that there is a market for women’s sports. The game is that good. From a sheer sporting perspective, it was, as Abby Wambach promised, “awesome.”
[Dave Zirin is the author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) and just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing email@example.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.]