Every four years, the Women’s World Cup is a celebration of female participation in sport. But Andrew Guest warns that the photos of young girls cheering the women on their national teams mask persistent inequalities in soccer and sport in general. For starters, look away from who’s playing on the field to see who’s running the teams from the touch-line.   


Germany and Sweden both rank high in the FIFA rankings and the UN Gender Inequality Index. They are also among the few teams at the Women's World Cup with a female coach. (Blondinrikard Flöberg/Flickr)

Germany and Sweden both rank high in the FIFA rankings and the UN Gender Inequality Index. They are also among the few teams at the Women’s World Cup with a female coach. (Blondinrikard Flöberg/Flickr)


A big part of the fun of a World Cup, any World Cup, is that the competition of diverse nations sparks the imagination with object lessons in cultural geography and social history. In the oft-cited words of Eric Hobsbawn, “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.” So with the Women’s World Cup kicking off in Canada this weekend, I’ve made my usual run to the online atlas and recent scholarship on the competing nations (along with, I must admit, a fair bit of Google and Wikipedia) in order to engage with the meanings behind the teams and the competition. Of course, the games themselves are fun too. I’ve got a “half passport” of tickets for the games in Vancouver, and I hope to report back from the event in a few weeks’ time. But to start, here is an attempt to get hyped nerd-style, with some bits of theory and data that might offer more creative ways to watch and think about the tournament.

In my mind, the most important theoretical tool for a thinking fan, particularly amidst the recent attention to FIFA corruption and Sepp Blatter’s old-fashioned misogyny, is sociological: the critical recognition that organizations and individuals are as much a product of society and history as of individual actions. FIFA and Blatter make for easy targets. They put names and faces to dramatically unequal spending on men’s and women’s soccer, minimal representation of women in the halls of power, and a literal unwillingness to even the playing surfaces. But criticizing FIFA and Blatter, while perfectly valid, also ends up feeling like what psychologists call “blasting” – finding an easy outlet for venting frustrations (often a referee, or coach, or villainous player) in a way that maintains some pride in identity, but risks missing the forest for the trees. Blatter is not the reason the first Women’s World Cup wasn’t held until 1991 (though he may be part of the reason that tournament wasn’t initially given the “World Cup” brand name). Instead, it can be argued that the patriarchy of FIFA is as much an effect as a cause of the social and cultural prohibitions on women’s competitive sport through much of the 20th century. The fact that countries as diverse as England, Germany, and Brazil all had formal bans on women’s soccer up to recent decades suggests something more pernicious than just the aristocratic masculinity emanating from FIFA headquarters in Zurich.

The sociological imagination is also a worthwhile tool for interpreting the stories of the individual players that will likely saturate media coverage (especially in the US) during the tournament. Team USA is already promoting its “One Nation. One Team. 23 Stories” campaign to lionize the individual character and effort it took the US players to achieve world-class status. Certainly, there are some inspirational stories. But it is also symbolic that the campaign is sponsored by Clorox Bleach – a product designed for whitewashing. The current US Women’s National Team, like American women’s soccer generally, is notably lacking in diversity, with only three mixed race African-American players, each of whom was raised by white mothers, and one self-identified “part-Hispanic” player (Amy Rodriguez’s father is Cuban). It would be difficult to find out the players’ socio-economic backgrounds, but it is noteworthy that a Sports Illustrated profile of star player Alex Morgan included a story of how her dad bought her a new Lexus in high school for her performance in academics and athletics. It is important to emphasize that all these players have indeed worked hard, dreamed big, and deserve individual credit for their achievements. But it is essential to also keep in mind that the opportunity structure for women’s soccer, and for women’s sports in the US generally, is unequal in a way that severely limits the possibility for a genuinely representative talent pool.

The other theoretical tool fans might find useful in watching the Women’s World Cup is that old Gramscian standby of cultural hegemony, defined as when the dominant classes present “their definition of reality, their view of the world, in such a way that it is accepted by other classes as ‘common sense.’” In the case of women’s soccer, I’m regularly struck by the tendency to measure success by when the game is working like the men’s game, at a time when the men’s game is in many ways deeply troubled. I remember, for example, an older promotional video for the women’s national team that showed almost nothing but hard tackles and brute force. The video successfully portrayed the strength of women, while simultaneously highlighting some of the ugliest tactics in the beautiful game.

Cultural hegemony has also been usefully applied to explain some of the paradoxes of the success of Title IX in the United States. Since its passage as educational legislation in 1972, Title IX has been a massive success in raising sports participation rates for girls. In the 1971-72 school year, before the law was in effect, there was a total of 28 girls high school soccer teams, with 700 players in all of the US. By 2013-14, that number had gone up to 11,354 schools with girls soccer teams and 374,564 players (or an astonishing 535 players for every one who played before Title IX). This legislation and its effects on girls’ participation in sports is almost certainly the single biggest reason the US has been a consistent power in global women’s soccer. But the general increases in female participation in sports have also coincided with a decrease, on a proportional basis, in women in positions of authority in sports. In 1978, nearly 60 percent of NCAA head coaches of women’s teams across all sports were women, but that number was down to 43 percent by 2012 (in soccer, the percentages have been consistently low – from nearly 30% in 1978 to 32% in 2012). Likewise, coverage of all women’s sports has consistently declined on both regular networks and shows such as ESPN’s SportsCenter (in 2009, SportsCenter devoted only 1.4 percent of its coverage to women’s sports, down from 2.2 percent in 1999, the year of the US team’s win in the Women’s World Cup). The general argument here is that, in many ways, women’s sports have been coopted into a marginalized position within the male-dominated world of consumer sports business. The more specific argument is that when women’s soccer advocates ask for the game to be taken more seriously by FIFA and other existing power structures, there is a significant risk of being coopted into a particular “definition of reality.”

Speaking of data on participation, soccer’s primary hegemon has made some recent efforts to document the involvement of girls and women in soccer in different parts of the world. In collaboration with the CIES Football Observatory, FIFA published in 2014 a “Women’s Football Survey,” based on responses from 177 member associations. Unfortunately, almost all the results are aggregated by regional confederations (AFC, CAF, CONCACAF, CONMEBOL, OFC, and UEFA) in a way that makes nuanced analysis difficult. They also report average expenditures on the women’s game within member associations without making any comparison to men’s spending by the same associations. As Nicholas Mendola noted on Pro Soccer Talk, the average annual investment of $220,000 in women’s soccer by national associations “is nothing when you consider how elevated that figure must be by the big dollars invested in the United States and much of Europe. To put that figure in perspective, of the 32 nations at last summer’s men’s World Cup, only one coach was paid less than $220,000: Mexico’s Miguel Herrera at $209K.”

I also suspect that the associations’ self-reported participation numbers would have widely different criteria and validity. But there are some interesting tidbits in the FIFA survey. For example: “The United States and Canada have almost half of the 4.8 million female players registered at worldwide level.” It’s also interesting that on a proportional basis there are more female referees (10%) in women’s soccer than coaches (6.7%) or executive committee members (8% globally). The survey notes, however: “This difference is mainly explained by the greater relative percentage of women among referees in the United States and Canada than among coaches (28% compared to 21%).” When viewed in that context, it is almost impressive that eight of the 24 teams in the upcoming Women’s World Cup will have female coaches.

Finally, if you’ve read this far, you are probably not too concerned with whether the data can tell you who is actually going to win the tournament – other data analytics will probably be much better for helping you beat the betting odds. But it is worth mentioning that several scholars have identified consistent, though perhaps not surprising, relationships between the broader gender equity of a society and the quality of its women’s soccer. Economists Joshua Congdon-Hohman and Victor Matheson, for example, analyzed economic, demographic, political, and cultural variables to predict national team performance. They found that several measures of gender equality “improve soccer performance for both men’s and women’s soccer . . . while other measures of equality, particularly those related to women’s access to education, improve women’s soccer performance without enhancing men’s performance.” Likewise, Julia Bredtmann, Carsten Creded, and Sebastian Otten of Ruhr Universität Bochum found that “differences in male and female labor force participation rates and life expectancies are able to explain the international soccer performance of female teams, but not that of male teams, suggesting that gender equality is an important driver of female sport success.”

Following on that research, I did a quick look at the nations represented in this year’s World Cup and found something reasonably similar (see the table below). Among the 24 teams playing in Canada over the next few weeks, there is essentially no correlation between the FIFA rankings for the women’s teams and the men’s teams (r = .01 for the other data nerds out there). In other words, at an international level the relative quality of a national men’s team tells you virtually nothing about the relative quality of a Women’s World Cup team. But there is an incredibly strong correlation between the FIFA ranking for women’s teams and national rankings in the UN Gender Inequality Index for 2013 (r = .82). So to make this a bit more like an actual tournament preview – knowing the conditions that women face in a particular country (as measured by variables such as maternal mortality, political participation, educational opportunity, and labor force participation) will tell you a lot about whether that country’s team will be good at the Women’s World Cup.

Ultimately, it is important to watch the Women’s World Cup with an appreciation for the talents of the players, the tactics of the teams, and the intensity of the competition. But for a thinking fan, it’s also important to watch the Women’s World Cup with a broader appreciation for what is possible. After all, as that self-proclaimed “godfather” of women’s soccer Sepp Blatter liked to claim: “The future of football is feminine.”

Women FIFA table

Andrew Guest teaches psychology and sociology at the University of Portland and is the author of numerous articles on sports psychology and youth development in both North America and Africa. He has written for pitchinvasion.net and occasionally writes about sport and the social sciences at Sports & Ideas. Andrew is on Twitter at @sportsandideas.