According to the FIFA preview for this event, Team GB’s game against Brazil will be the first women’s football match ever played at Wembley.*
I’m a big supporter of Team GB. They have great players – just the midfield features Jill Scott, Rachel Yankey, Fara Williams, Anita Asante. There’s Kelly Smith, Ellen White, Alex Scott – all fantastic and very experienced players. England (Team GB is England w/ a few players from Scotland) beat Japan 2-0 in the World Cup. They beat the US in a friendly a few months before that. They lost to France in the quarterfinals on penalties. (That left us with a lot to talk about as manager Hope Powell complained to the press that too few of the players wanted to take the penalty shots. The media storm created by that was perhaps even worse than that created recently by Solo. There was talk of Powell’s retirement from the England team.)
Team GB is a legacy team. If within the men’s game there is a romance to playing for the countries that “invented” football, the women who take the field at Wembley tomorrow honor a far more heroic past. For fifty years of women were banned from football pitches. Where at the end of WWI, people turned out in huge numbers (far exceeding attendance at women’s league matches in England and the US) by the 1970s (when the game was decriminalized) it was a nearly universal object for derision.
But off the grid, behind that history of prohibition and hostility women played on. If the FA banned women’s football and created a culture in which the idea of women playing the game seemed ridiculous, they also created a football underground. The ban produced a punk-rock oppositional zone for gender non-conforming girls and women to find each other. By this I don’t mean that women footballers circa 1970 were gay punks and labor organizers. But rather that the history of women’s football is that of a counter-culture – far more powerfully than is true of the men’s game, even given its working class roots. How many men are bullied and harassed off of football pitches, for being men? (Histories of women’s teams through the 70s and 80s can include stories of women being physically assaulted for taking pitches – telling men to get off the field you’ve paid for could be dangerous.)
I just love the women of those generations and the legacy they’ve given us – a legacy of outspoken, pig-headed, delusional figures like Hope Powell – who fought her way through circumspect and hostile boys, proved herself amongst them, played for women’s teams through years when doing so was seen as a ridiculous waste of time, then slugged it out with the FA. As she put it in an interview, “I will not be bullied.”
And she won’t take anything less than that level of determination from her squad.
My emotional attachment to this team is complicated. They have contributed some of the most exciting matches to the recent history of the women’s game. It has been generally true that you can count on Brazil for entertaining football – technical skill, theatrics, gamesmanship, emotion and drama. The women’s team has everything the men’s team is famous for. Except money and institutional backing.
It was easy to root for them when they played Germany – when they were the underdog, the talented side proving themselves to an indifferent CBF (the organization managing the sport in Brazil). They have pleaded for help from the CBF for years. In 2007, while at the Women’s World Cup, the team’s players wrote and signed a letter of complaint to the federation. They complained that not only was the team under-supported, the CBF routinely failed to direct awards money to the team. There was no clarity regarding financial support for players, and no consistency in material support for the team’s training.
They thought things would improve when they won a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics. They gave the heavily favored USWNT a run for the money (Abby Wambach who put the game away in its waning minutes). Given their outstanding performance there, the Brazilian thought maybe things would get better for them. But their future success would only highlight the potential that was going to waste. Year after year.
At the 2011 World Cup, the team went into competition wearing the uniform for the men’s side. That’s as big a symbolic statement as a federation can make – they do not order team kits specific to the women’s side (and so their shirts had stars for all the World Cup trophies won by the men). The women complained publicly about these problems in 2007. Little has changed. Lost in reports regarding the profound corruption at the highest levels of Brazilian football is the impact of this lack of professionalism must have on the women’s team. It’s dire.
Brazil’s women ask their federation for support, holding up a banner at the 2007 Women’s World Cup award ceremony.Imagine you compete against the US and Germany, year after year you show that you have the ability to conquer teams with far better training.
The team’s semifinal win (4-1) against Germany in the 2008 Olympics remains one of my favorite viewing experiences. In that match they broke Germany’s defense. Better teams (including the US) had tried and failed. It was a very physical game, but it was a game that also featured fantastic technical ability and a certain ruthlessness. Both teams tried to knock their opponent out of rhythm. Brazil played like a real team. Their first goal was a telepathic collaboration between three of the game’s absolute best: Formiga, Marta and Cristiane. They never connected like that in the final, though. The USWNT took all the wind out of their sails, and took the trophy with one goal scored in extra-time.
Imagine that over and over again you find yourself inches from a trophy. You have not just one of the best players in the world on your squad (Marta), but two (Cristiane) – and a host of others who are absolute all-stars (Formiga – playing in her fifth Olympics). But you never get to the winner’s circle – after so many years, maybe you stop thinking that you can. Because the grim reality of it all soaks in: the world is full of talented players. You need more.
Cut to last year’s World Cup tournament. The team’s performance in the game against the USWNT was heartbreaking. As much as I was rooting for the American women, I was rooting for a great performance from Brazil. Yes, they almost knocked the US out of the tournament. They were so close. But they played angry.
They didn’t play with the kind of focused anger Wambach used to avenge herself against Colombia’s Lady Andrade. Last year, Brazil played like they were angry at the world – like the USWNT had everything that they have been fighting for and have been denied. Like they were frustrated and like they were very tired of being frustrated. It looks to me like the battle with the CBF is breaking them. I guess they were just playing by the ‘by any means necessary’ playbook. Infamously, at about 115 minutes Erika plopped herself down on the field and just lay there, faking injury and eating up nearly four minutes of the game. After watching that, I wondered if I could ever want to see them win anything again, ever.
I still can’t believe that happened.
In this tournament, Brazil has yet to be tested. Five unanswered goals against Cameroon isn’t really a game. To score only one against New Zealand – late in the match, too – it doesn’t bode well.<
Whatever the outcome, Team GB and Brazil are both heading to the quarterfinals. They are playing to avoid moving on to face the second place finisher in group F: right now, that’s likely to be the reigning World Cup champions. If it’s not, then it’s formidable Sweden. The winner of this match, however, will move on to face Canada or North Korea. That’s where both will want to be.
*I never trust this kind of information, as people have a tendency to frame every big women’s event as a “first,” even when history says otherwise. (The launch for the FA Women’s Super League was staged at Wembley, but no matches have been played there.)