It’s about 73 minutes into USA v. Colombia when Morgan Brian sprints onto the pitch and replaces star striker Abby Wambach. The audience erupts into cheers. I am informed that these cheers are not for Wambach, who’s put a tough shift, but for Brian. She plays for UVA. That’s the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. And this means a lot to the assembled audience of at least 150 locals at the Paramount Theatre, several of whom are also watching the UVA men’s baseball team play in the national finals on their phones. The cheers turn to amused chuckles as Brian promptly passes the ball out of touch.
‘So,’ I had asked my friend a few days before, ‘been watching any of the Women’s World Cup?’ I had arrived in the States from the UK and this was an innocuous bit of catch-up chat. I received a confused look. She and her husband had been watching about two matches a day. This was a normal viewing pattern during the group stages of a World cup. They could watch on one the major network TV stations at home, head to a sports bar, or attend one of a dozen free screenings at the landmark Paramount Theatre. There followed a lengthy discussion of current rankings, cup upsets and the astro-turf debacle.
Despite considering myself a football fan, I did not know anything about the Women’s World Cup. I did not cavil when my favourite football chat thread mourned the end of the football in May. I would, like every other football fan in the UK, console myself with transfer window gossip and FIFA-related scandal until (praise be!) the Premier League once again monopolized the weekend television schedule. But within 24-hours of arriving in the US, I had two big questions. How was it that I knew so much about men’s football and so little about women’s football? More importantly, how had I forgotten that watching women’s sports is, well, normal?
I spent my childhood summers watching tennis-legends Steffi Graf and Monica Seles engaged in epic, ear-splitting battles before being herded outside, baseball mitt in hand, because my mother insisted I learn how to throw a ball. My grandmother, herself the daughter of a college track coach, loved women’s athletics. And basketball was her favourite spectator sport. Because of this, and because the tickets were cheap, I went to every home game of the UVA women’s basketball team between the ages of 8 and 13 with my grandmother, wearing head-to-toe navy and orange (UVA’s colours), my mother and my sister.
I started refusing to go to games as a teenager. Not because I didn’t enjoy watching, but because I had to go with my family. Nothing is more embarrassing when you reach a certain age than public confirmation that you do indeed have a family. And this is especially true when your mother roams the stands after the game, collecting the sturdy plastic cola cups for re-use as household beakers. But I can still remember the names of the starting line-up that made it to the Final Four three times in the early nineties: Tammi Reiss, a feisty guard with huge hair, Audra Smith, an impeccably poised centre-forward, Heather and Heidi Burge, two identically gargantuan Californians. Best of all was their point guard and captain, Dawn Staley, who would go on to captain the women’s national team.
When Staley received the biggest American sporting honour – carrying the flag into the Olympic stadium at Athens in 2004 – both Charlottesville and Philadelphia, home of Temple University where Staley coached, basked in this reflected glory. The collegiate athletes, like Morgan Brian, who come to Charlottesville are embraced by the city. They become ‘one of us’ and residents follow the rest of their career with a special interest. Women’s college athletes are of course still significantly underfunded when compared with their male counterparts. This is especially true when you take in to account that the single most popular sport in the nation, American Football, has no women’s counterpart. But the playing field is far more level elsewhere. For no sport is this truer than for soccer.
Half of youth players in the United States are girls. Looking around the theatre during USA v. Colombia, I noticed that while there was a smattering of replica jerseys many of the girls wore their own playing jerseys. I’m sure that watching a young woman from UVA make her first appearance on international television was pretty awe-inspiring. But I think the local context of that appearance was something closer to the real nature of ‘inspirational’. Girls that were in that audience know that whatever level their playing reaches, and whether they are in Charlottesville or in one of the countless other college towns around the country, there will be a community cheering them on. And they will think it’s normal.