Watching the Women’s World Cup as a sports outsider

I finally understood sports the moment when some unseen force pulled me to my feet as I began clapping; the US Women’s National Team goal in the first few minutes of the championship game, after a nail biting scrum in the penalty box, brought the experience to life for me in a way no other moment quite could. 

I “got” sports intellectually, I understood why people liked and were fascinated with it, from a distance; but the sociologist in me was always in control, monitoring and observing with disinterest, even as I watched historic games. I found myself sitting down to watch the Men’s World Cup periodically, or World Series games — I was in Boston when the infamous “curse” was reversed and the whole city roared in an act of exorcism that kept the night alive with clamor. I remember, as a child, watching the Yankees with my father as they won that historic 1996 Series — their first since 1978. Tidbits like that, by the way, are part of the draw of sports; loath as some are to admit, it’s a profoundly nerdy pursuit. Memorization of obscure trivia, numbers games, deep investment in the esoterica of strategy and histories of the players, all mirror the nitty gritty of, say, Dungeons & Dragons.

But for the longest time, I was on the outside looking in, mostly. The fact that I found myself rooting for both the Yankees and the Red Sox should tell you I’m a terrifically awful baseball fan, as these things are measured. I was more interested in seeing history and trivia get made than in supporting a team for the emotional sake of it.

Then, on a lark, I sat down the other day to watch the Women’s World Cup final between the US and Japan. And all that changed. I was stunned at myself when I gave that first goal by Carli Lloyd a standing ovation; it deserved it, certainly, I like to think I can admire good technique, and scoring a goal that early in a game of soccer is a powerful opener, for sure. The fastest, as it happens, in the entire Women’s World Cup this year. But the history didn’t stop there. Two more goals by Lloyd, including an unbelievable kick from midfield, plus a fourth from Lauren Holiday, made for a stunning first half, even as the Japanese tried their best to give as good as they were getting.

Contrary to American-driven stereotypes about soccer being boring, this game made me understand why “on the edge of your seat” is an idiom; I felt like I could barely sit down, even when I was clacking away on my laptop and sipping a pre-emptive celebratory cosmo. Sport retains its merits, clearly. But there was something special about seeing this high-definition vision of women doing things that I’d grown up being told we couldn’t do. From the sheer, fully motile desire that the players and their bodies expressed, to the presence of all-women staff, from referees to timekeepers, all before a thunderous crowd more populous than a small city, it was incredible to witness.

Women were doing this: it was a vision of another world, a better one perhaps. The players’ passion, and their unpretentious, athletic humanity, drew me in and made me feel like I was part of their world. An actual sports fan.


But there are ways in which it all, naturally, comes back to earth in unpleasant ways, and ways that make me feel like an outsider in the world of sports once again.

For instance, I’ve still never quite grasped the almost dehumanizing hatred fans have for “the other team,” regardless of the sport, gender, or venue. I genuinely felt sorry for Japanese goalie Ayumi Kaihori, who looked absolutely devastated after Lloyd’s stunning midfield kick got past her; at the end of halftime she was carrying another player on her back and it was absolutely adorable, there seemed to be very real kinship among the women of the team. When the final whistle blew and the US team was declared victorious, the camera showed a weeping Kaihori, her tears being carefully daubed away by a teammate. She had started to come into her own in the second half, more forcefully patrolling the net and stopping incoming shots with verve, but it wasn’t enough.

Happy as I was for the US Women’s National Team, I still wanted to give every member of Nadeshiko Japan a hug and congratulate them on a game well-played. They fought hard after a morale-crushing opening 20 minutes, after all. Unfortunately, not everyone quite shared in that sentiment, to say nothing of the ridiculously sexist stereotypes that have been attributed to both teams on the basis of their nationalities.

And so there remain some things about sports that I still can’t quite understand. It suffers from the same problem of distancing and dissociation that afflicts all media (perhaps most especially the internet), wherein one never quite apprehends the targets of one’s words as real people with fragile and violable humanity. The emotional investment that made me leap from my sofa was a powerful, addicting thing, with all the headiness of whiskey or Szechuan food. But I still wince at the worldwide ugliness committed in the name of sports on behalf of one team’s colors or the other, to say nothing of how it can often become a weird proxy for nationalism even as it can vent its fervor away safely.

And while I cheerfully told my partner that the Women’s World Cup lacked all the “macho bullshit” I’ve come to disdain elsewhere in sports — I was certainly grateful for the lack of melodramatically play-acted injuries that have had me rolling my eyes many a time at men’s soccer games in my local bar, and for the presence of refreshingly open queerness as seen in this lovely gif of team captain Abby Wambach running to the stands to kiss her wife — it is hardly immune to one of the other great sporting sins: putting the game before all other moral considerations.

Hope Solo was in top form in this final game, an iron wall that could jump; only when Kaihori began to emulate this did she stanch Nadeshiko Japan’s bleeding, after all. But there is still an open case of domestic violence against Solo; she allegedly brutally attacked her half-sister and nephew and has yet to be held meaningfully to account for it. (Her account can be found in this penetrating ESPN feature). That she has not seemed to suffer any punishment whatsoever for any of this from her team should concern us all. I saw more than a few tweets (from men, no less) saying they didn’t care whether or not Solo had engaged in domestic abuse: they just wanted her to help win the game. When I broached the subject on Twitter in the wake of the World Cup victory (after posting a few celebratory tweets of my own), I was immediately challenged by a man telling me not to rain on the parade.

Along with those asinine Pearl Harbor tweets, it’s more than a bit of a sour note to have ended on.

The days of women’s sport being seen as inferior should be long over: the US Women’s National Team gritted their teeth through unsafe, hot turf (rather than the real grass given to the men), and through making far less money as victors than first round male losers in the Men’s World Cup, all to bring us a spectacular display of skillful footballing made of beautiful elastic structures that were a joy to watch.

But in so many ways, as fans in particular, we have such a very long way to go.

Header image credit: Dennis Grombkowski via Getty Images

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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