U.S. has leg up in growth of women's soccer
As the FIFA Women’s World Cup begins, Patrick Ridge, associate professor of Spanish, offers insight on the growth of women's soccer worldwide.
Patrick Ridge couldn’t help but fall in love with the game of soccer.
He played the sport growing up, and he remained hooked by the game’s excitement when he attended matches and World Cup watch parties in Latin America and Spain while studying, teaching, and researching.
“I saw the fervor,” said Ridge, now an associate professor of Spanish at Virginia Tech who studies soccer for a living. His focus is the sport’s literary and cultural significance in Latin America.
In fact, his latest research dives into gender stereotypes and myths that label soccer a man’s sport in Latin America, especially in Argentina and Brazil. He argues that the rise of women in the sport is changing that narrative, but that it will take a lot to change perceptions in some countries.
Women’s soccer revs up this week worldwide with the FIFA Women’s World Cup beginning July 20. This is the first year that the women's championship will be played in two countries — Australia and New Zealand. The women’s competition has been held every four years since 1991.
Ridge offers insight into the women’s game and its growth around the world, particularly in the United States, where support for soccer appears to have the edge over other countries.
What is most interesting about this year’s Women’s World Cup?
Ridge: There is a lot to be excited about for this year’s tournament. It might feature the most competitive field in its history. Although the U.S. serves as a clear favorite to win its third straight World Cup, other participating squads have beaten the U.S. women’s team within the last year, including England, Germany, and Spain. The Spanish side features FC Barcelona standout Alexia Putellas, the winner of the FIFA Player of the Year, and Ballon d’Or in 2021 and 2022. Also to note, this World Cup will likely be the last for talents like Megan Rapinoe (USA) and Marta Vieira da Silva, known as Marta (Brazil), the latter arguably regarded as the greatest women’s player of all time.
What does the women’s soccer landscape look like in other countries? Is the sport growing?
Ridge: Despite documented evidence of women’s soccer as early as the 1900s in Latin America, soccer has been historically regarded as a man’s game where the sport is most popular. I am currently working on a book project that examines the masculinist myths of soccer in Argentina and Brazil. By myth, I refer not only to the cultural narratives that have idealized Argentine and Brazilian men’s soccer, but the oft-perceived notion that the game is reserved for men.
I trace the origins of these misconceptions to the sportsmen that first played the game, the nationalist thinkers that adopted men’s soccer as the means for national representation, the medical and physical education experts that deemed the sport too “manly” for women, and the discourses of homophobia and sexism that have historically resonated throughout the stadium.
One of the most egregious consequences of the adherence to these myths was the banning of women from soccer in Brazil from 1941-1979.
So though legislation like Title IX has contributed to the growth of women’s soccer in the U.S. since the 1970s, a legacy of gender prejudice and inequality has most often sidelined women and girls playing in Latin America.
What has contributed to the growth of women’s soccer in the United States?
Ridge: Sports historian and Title XI expert Victoria Jackson writes that "no law has been more important to the global development of women’s soccer than Title IX." It is important to note that while soccer is regarded as a man’s sport in much of Latin America, this designation has most often been linked with American football in the United States. The reluctance to support women’s soccer in other countries has not occurred as much in the U.S. Rather, thanks to Title IX, universities have invested heavily in sports like women’s soccer. This has contributed to a sporting infrastructure that has historically given the United States a leg up on foreign competition.
How does the Women’s World Cup enhance representation for women’s sports?
Ridge: Global sporting events like the Women’s World Cup offer greater visibility for women’s athletics. Part of my work deals with how men and women are represented in the media and cultural production. For example, coverage of soccer has typically showcased men’s soccer, while women and girls have been portrayed in conventional gender roles on the sidelines and often in ways that sexualize their bodies. Their participation in the World Cup suggests that women can play the game too, but perhaps more importantly, it offers young girls figures that defy what patriarchal society has traditionally confined them to: wives, girlfriends, cheerleaders, and others. The 2023 World Cup offers the highest level of talent and competition for women’s athletics.
How are sports, like soccer, an important window into a country’s culture?
Ridge: Argentine sociologist Juan José Sebreli has written that the soccer stadium serves as a mirror that reflects greater society. For example, interpreted in the context of international competitions like the World Cup, national teams not only serve as symbols of the nation, but they often allow us to imagine ourselves as a part of a shared community. Viewed alternatively in terms of gender, I’m optimistic that the growing presence of girls and women in soccer stadiums in Latin America and elsewhere might serve as indicator of a more equitable future on and off the field.