The U.S. women's national soccer team beat Germany 2-0 on Tuesday night, securing a space for the American women in the 2015 FIFA World Cup final. The U.S. will now play Japan in the final game at 7 p.m. on Sunday.
While the U.S. men’s team has struggled to make it into the top echelons of world soccer, the women’s team has dominated for a quarter century. And the reasons behind this trend seem, in part, to reflect broader social attitudes about women.
A recent analysis by Kuang Keng Kuek Ser of Public Radio International shows an interesting correlation between success in the Women’s World Cup and a country’s performance on gender equality. Kuek Ser looked at the United Nations' 2013 Gender Inequality Index, which measures how well women are doing in a country compared to men in measures of health, political empowerment and economic status. He charted the score for each of the top 23 teams in the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup (excluding Nigeria, since it doesn’t have a GII score).
As his results show, the top teams that scored above 1,800 points were all from countries with relatively low gender disparity. One notable exception is Brazil, the orange circle towards the bottom left-hand side, which has relatively high gender inequality but also a high position in the FIFA ranking.
There is an alternate explanation. As you can see in the graph above, most of these countries also have highly developed economies – the size of the circle represents gross domestic product per capita, which is generally larger toward the top right-hand side of the graphic. A more developed economy could definitely be the root cause behind both the smaller gender gap and better women’s soccer programs. But Kuek Ser says his research shows that gender inequality has an even stronger relationship with World Cup success than GDP does.
The success of women's soccer in the U.S. had a lot to do with the implementation of Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in federally funded education programs -- including both public and private schools that receive federal funds.
After Title IX went fully into effect in 1978, women’s soccer grew like crazy in the U.S. As Benjamin Morris of FiveThirtyEight writes, the number of women playing high school soccer in the U.S. rose from just a few tens of thousands in the late 1970s to about 375,000 today. More female high schoolers still play basketball and volleyball, but soccer may be set to overtake those sports in a decade or two.
And there’s actually another side to the story – it’s not just that the U.S. is doing much better at encouraging its women and girls to play soccer, it’s also that other countries have been shockingly bad. According to FIFA, only about 12 percent of youth soccer players are girls. And the U.S. makes up more than half of that total, says Morris.
Look at Brazil, for example, whose women’s soccer team has done well despite great (or terrible) odds. While Brazilian boys are taught to play soccer as soon as they can walk, Brazilian women were actually totally banned from playing the game between 1941 and 1979, PRI reports. Women couldn’t play the game professionally, or in school, or casually for fun. The country still has no national league for women's soccer, and women who play soccer in Brazil are often labeled "sapatão" or "big shoes," a slang term meaning lesbian.
Or look at FIFA, the global organization that is essentially responsible for promoting women’s soccer. There is little love lost between the world’s top female soccer players and FIFA, especially former FIFA president Sepp Blatter. When Blatter announced in early June that he would resign following corruption charges, U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe tweeted, “Ding dong the witch is dead.”
Ding dong the witch is dead. Daddy got his hand caught in the cookie jar.
— Megan Rapinoe (@mPinoe) June 2, 2015
In 2004, Blatter, the most senior figure in global soccer, suggested that women could increase the popularity of their game by wearing "tighter shorts."
"They could, for example, have tighter shorts," Blatter said. "Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so, and they already have some different rules to men—such as playing with a lighter ball. That decision was taken to create a more female aesthetic, so why not do it in fashion?"
What Blatter, who had already been president of FIFA for more than five years at the time, did not know is that the women don’t even play with a lighter ball.