By Tim Nash
It’s never been about just soccer.
That’s part of what has made Hope Solo’s comments about Sweden’s tactical approach to their quarterfinal win over the U.S., so disappointing. She forgot or maybe never realized that as a member of the U.S. women’s national team you are much, much more than just a soccer player.
Players on the U.S. have always been a very visible, very public advertisement for girls and women being able to play their hearts out, about young girls being able to have role models who look like them and love the same thing. And they have tackled the chore of convincing people that it’s perfectly fine for girls and women to compete – hard – for a win or a loose ball or a dream. And it’s been about being good people.
All of those qualities are now taken somewhat for granted. To think that it’s unacceptable for girls to play hard, or that female role models are in short supply is rather silly today, isn’t it? That’s in large part due to the work national team players have done over the past 30 years to erase those seemingly ancient realities.
Let’s hope that one ridiculous comment by Solo after a frustrating loss against an opponent that certainly understood it’s far easier to destroy than create — especially when playing a team with superior talent — doesn’t signal a reversal.
Going back to Day One, back to the group of women who barely knew and certainly didn’t understand they were playing for their country, the players approached the game and their team with pride, competitiveness and honor. They were hacked and mugged, cursed at and spit on by European teams who were more experienced in the way the game could – not should – be played.
But they learned from it, choosing the high, yet pothole-filled, road over the much easier route which featured easy excuses and ready-made complaints. They created a culture, and the players who came along every year since have added a little something to it, something positive.
The culture got the team to the point where we are not talking about whether girls and women should play but how well they can play. We are at the point where the conversations are about equal pay, equal resources and not accepting sub-par treatment from their own governing body, or a world governing body that listed artificial turf under “innovations” in the official 2015 World Cup technical report.
The foundation was set by players like April Heinrichs and Michelle Akers. The subsequent work was led by Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, and Carla Overbeck, Abby Wambach, Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan. But everyone wearing the jersey did their part to further the efforts, a mission that has succeeded beyond any initial expectations.
Along the way, the soccer got better. The level technical and tactical sophistication was raised. The fitness standards required to play at the international level soared. But it was never about soccer alone.
Julie Foudy remembers press events she did prior to the 1999 Women’s World Cup. “We were criticized for making it more than just a soccer event,” Foudy said in the new book “It’s Not the Glory”, which chronicles the first 30 years of the women’s national team. “So we would say, ‘Well, yeah, it is more than a soccer event.’ That’s what this team has always been about. We’ve been dedicated to our sport, but we also get the bigger picture. You are making a difference in people’s lives—children, families, girls, boys, women, men.”
Were they flawless? Of course not. Foudy admits asking herself on more occasions than she would like, “Did I just say that out loud?” But never were comments destructive, insulting or bitter.
And that’s because the players were articulate and persistent in their off-field business and behavior, never forgetting the next generation. They told each other, “On the field, off the field, in public, in private, in front of the microphone or not, you never know who’s watching. Lose with dignity, win with grace.”
There was a chance, they thought, a potential sponsor, or maybe someone thinking of owning a team, might be listening. And they knew for sure some little girl or boy would devour their words. As the popularity of the team grew, starting in 1996 and building with each World Cup or Olympics, the microphones multiplied, the T.V. exposure increased significantly, and the fan bases of every player became significant.
But it was still about much more than just soccer. The individual and collective popularity of the players on the 2015 and 2016 teams is as much a result of their involvement in social issues as anything they do on the field. When they spoke, parents could call their kids into the room and hope the players’ words sunk in.
They’ve gone public with anti-bullying messages, tackled LGBT topics, and race issues. We can watch their individual workouts and marvel at their fitness. We see they are proud of their bodies and watch them carry themselves with confidence and poise in front of millions, hundreds or just a few people. We hear about their faith and their families and their husbands, partners and children.
All of that has nothing to do with what Tobin Heath can do with a ball, or how quickly Mallory Pugh can leave a defender behind. It has nothing to do with how many shutouts the team has when Solo is in the goal, or how many medals they have at home. And it certainly doesn’t matter what type of game plan their opponent comes up with on any given day.
It appears Solo’s comments reflect only on her and have not tarnished the overall effort, grace and competitiveness of the team as a whole or any of the individual players showed at the Olympics.
There is work to do and that means there is little time for nonsense. There are messages to send, like if a country wants to compete for a world title in women’s soccer that country is going to have to treat its women athletes better, invest some money and provide some resources. That’s a message received clearly in France, England, Colombia, Japan, China, and Brazil.
And there is that public campaign for equal pay, which has Solo as one of its spokeswomen.
There are generations counting on this team to make things better than they are now. To do that work, the players need some simple weapons at their disposal — popularity, intelligence, stubbornness and eloquence. They have all that, and leaving Rio without Gold medals won’t take it away.
What was damaged by Solo’s comments – as well as her previous antics – is some public credibility. Google “Hope Solo Sweden” and watch 320,000 matches come up. Not all publicity is good publicity.
Will it blow over? Sure. Something will certainly come along and change the conversation, but for a while, players, the ones who acted with class and dignity, will have to answer questions about Solo, her comments and her personality, instead of talking about more than just a soccer player.
Tim Nash is a freelance writer and author of the new book, “It’s Not the Glory, the Remarkable First Thirty Years of U.S. Women’s Soccer.” To purchase a copy, click here