The Women’s World Cup is currently being held. Were you aware of this? If not, that’s kind of OK, because even the country that is currently hosting the event seems to be only mildly clued in. That would be Germany. You know Germany, yeah? One of the world’s biggest soccer enthusiasts? The games are all sold out, they are shown on national TV, people seem to be aware of who is placing where (though, to be fair, they were mainly aware of how Germany was doing…and they lost last weekend…so…), but if you didn’t do some research on your own, you would never know that this country is hosting the biggest tournament in the world for the world’s most popular sport…even if you live here. Now, of course, that statement in itself needs some clearing up: The World Cup is the biggest tournament for the world’s most popular sport (what we in America call soccer)…but the Women’s World Cup is not quite the same thing. And I have come to see that as a problem.
When Inka first told me that Germany was hosting the Women’s World Cup, I was ecstatic! I got into the 2010 World Cup in a big way last summer, I think primarily because I was in Honduras the week they found out they were going to the tournament in South Africa, I have friends who have been to South Africa, I was dating someone from Germany (and about to go there myself), I was looking for a reason to like America…my sister, her boyfriend, Inka and I all had a side bet going with March Madness-style brackets…it was a very exciting time! So to be living in Germany at the same time as this huge every-4-year event…what could be better?! Sadly, by the time we were looking into getting tickets to any of the games, they were all sold out. I was not completely surprised, given Germany’s love for soccer I felt confident that, not only would I not be going to any of the games, but there would be a prompt shut-down of all public services and Toronto-style rioting! I was ready and excited!
Well, the Women’s World Cup is entering the finals this week, and…it was just this last weekend that we actually watched part of a game, we saw Germany lose to Japan and get kicked out of the tournament. Apparently the USA team earned their way into the final round about an hour ago and I didn’t even know there was a game on. Last summer, in August, when we arrived in Germany, Inka’s home street was decorated in German flags that were streaming and flowing and waving out of windows and around houses. I said, “Inka, I thought you said Germany is not particularly patriotic? What’s with all the flags?” Inka said, “It’s left over from the World Cup.” The event had ended over a month before, but the evidence of the support and celebration was still in clear sight. This year, while the country is hosting the event…not a single new flag on the street. In fact, I may have seen one from last year finally get taken down a couple weeks ago. At first, I was stunned that the whole thing wasn’t getting more attention, that even the seminary students who seemed to talk soccer all year long have not mumbled a word about it. It was confusing. Now I find it…troubling.
Especially because I finally watched a game last weekend. I got really excited about every game I saw last summer, and I found that amazing because of how slow the games were. If it isn’t clear already, I’m not a soccer fan. Not a sports fan in general, but soccer is something that I am least tangentially connected to. I mean, I don’t even get excited about baseball and that’s the one sport that I played throughout my entire childhood (6-12 years old), and I was even on the #1 undefeated Cubs team one year (it was only later that I appreciated how awesomely hilarious it was that the Sierra Vista Little League Chicago Cubs had an undefeated season…with me as one of their star players…ok, star right-fielder). So the fact that I getting excited about soccer, a sport I played for maybe three months during which time I was constantly ridiculed, it’s a minor miracle. All summer, the ball went up the field and down the field, the score usually at 0-0 right up until the end, for two hours this would go on…and I was RIVETED! Now that I’ve seen a WOMEN’S soccer match, I don’t think I will ever be able to pay attention to a men’s game ever again. Because, as opposed to their masculine counter parts, Women soccer players MOVE! The Germany/Japan game was 0-0 right up through overtime, but they were RUNNING that field and firing soccer balls towards the goals every…well it seemed like…every three seconds. Do you know how many times I saw the men’s soccer games stopped on account of someone falling over and crying (even though the video clearly showed–nearly every time–that no one was near him when he fell over)? I don’t know either because after awhile you get tired of counting these things and you need to go get a beer. How many times did this happen during the women’s game? Only once, when a Japanese player was clearly (accidentally) spiked by a German player. The rest of the time, these women ran, full speed, juggled the ball in ways that boggled my physics-challenged brain, they had a time out just so that everyone could lay down for a minute, get rubbed down thoroughly by their trainers, run in place(!) and then get back out and continue the most fascinating and exciting display of human endurance I have ever witnessed with my eyes. It was astonishing, the level of intensity these women showed CONSTANTLY for over two hours. I used to get winded doing half hour One Act plays in college. These incredible women play on the same level, on the same size field, with the same rules as the Men’s World Cup players, with far MORE energy and intensity…and they get a fraction of the attention.
Again, to be fair, the ratings in Germany during their team’s early game against Canada actually bested the ratings of the men’s German team games last year, by a LOT. Roughly 18 million people, that’s 25% of the country, watched that game! That really is astounding, but it makes it even more confusing to me why such a highly watched sports event can be virtually non-present in subsequent public discourse. In America it’s another story entirely. Last year, the final game of the World Cup was the highest rated soccer match in the history of the US (and the world!), with 15 million US viewers and 700 million world wide! Among those 700 million were 25 million Germans, 10 million more than tuned in for Germany’s opening game this year, even though Germany was not in the final game of the 2010 World Cup. In the US, the American team’s victory over Brazil in the quarterfinals on Sunday was seen by 3.89 million people. Seemingly not bad, but, in comparison, that is about half as many people who watched the Home Run Derby the next day. As far as I know, that’s not even something that has to do with an actual competition.
OK, that’s a lot of numbers, and a lot of it may mean nothing. Of course final matches attract more attention than earlier ones. Of course America would watch more baseball than soccer. But those numbers, combined with the lack of cultural support and enthusiasm in the hosting country itself…it really is a powerful reminder of how little praise and attention our patriarchal world gives to women’s activities, triumphs, and social issues. All things being equal, why should it matter that about 1% of America watched the Women’s Soccer game this last Sunday, but over 50% of America watched this year’s Super Bowl? Clearly that can and does demonstrate a preference for American football over soccer as much as (or more than) men over women. But things aren’t equal. The women play the game better, at least from what I’ve seen. I can’t remember the last time I saw a display of human physical prowess in a Super Bowl that was even half as enthralling as what the women in the Germany/Japan match pulled off on Sunday.
Part of my journey to Wahnfried is to check and correct the cultural blind spots that I have inherited; and among that long list is an outright insistence that I pay attention to our greatest displays of masculine dominance while ignoring the far more impressive achievements of women. This is not just true in sports, but in an entertainment-fueled culture, that may be one of the most obvious and important areas. And it is a phenomenon that is easier to spot in Germany, because it’s comparing one World Cup to another World Cup, where the only difference is gender; but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold true for America. Think of the jokes you’ve heard about the WNBA versus the number of WNBA games that you’ve watched. Think of the funding challenges faced by high school women’s sports teams versus the guaranteed luxury of the men’s high school sports teams. Now, remove sports from the picture and think of every other aspect of our society and tell me if you don’t see a similar pattern.
We are trained to pay attention to certain things and ignore others. This is a big part of what it means to be “enlightened” or Wahnfried “free of illusion”; recognizing that anything we know as “truth” is a small sliver of a larger reality, which is hidden from our view by our own biases and prejudices. We favor America over the rest of the world, we favor our religion over others, we favor our friends over our strangers, and we favor men over women. I don’t know if it’s possible for me to make a more obvious statement than that, but I also know that there are many things that exist in this world, things that are worthy of my attention, my prayers, my money, my time…things that I don’t even think about because my culture convinced me from an early age that they aren’t important.
I don’t know what will be more interesting to me: to see the numbers from the Women’s World Cup Final Match when America plays later this week, or to see how much more popular Soccer becomes in America when/if the Men’s soccer team ever wins the World Cup Final. Because the Women’s team did it over ten years ago already. I don’t know if we ignore this because of our disinterest in soccer or our disinterest in the achievements of women in our country.
We have no control over the cultural biases that are instilled in us, but if we care enough, we can work to change those biases for future descendants of our culture. And that begins by becoming aware…paying homage…celebrating and naming…publicly and proudly.
Women’s World Cup Finals–Sunday, July 17 8:45 p.m. (German time); USA vs. Japan (probably). Be there. Start to tell a new story.