The United States will arrive in France for the women’s World Cup as the standard-bearers for one of the most dominant eras in the history of international football. In the 34 years since a makeshift team played their first international, the Americans have forged a record of success unparalleled in womens football.
Since the first women’s World Cup in 1991, the USA has won the tournament three times and finished runner-up once. Over the same period, the USA has won four gold medals and a silver since womens football was launched at the 1996 Olympics.
It is the sort of record that the USA men’s team – who did not qualify for the 2018 World Cup – can only dream of. So how have they done it? Why have generation after generation of US women emerged as world-beaters? The roots of US dominance can be traced back to landmark legislation passed in 1972 known as Title IX. The law banned gender discrimination in federally-funded education programs and paved the way for a new generation of female athletes.
Karen Blumenthal, author of “Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX: The Law That Changed The Future of Girls in America” said the legislation transformed the sporting landscape of high schools and colleges across the United States.
Establishments which had been lavishing millions on athletic programs for men were required to introduce programs for girls and women. Soccer programs flourished because they were easy to set up.
“Soccer is really cheap,” Blumenthal told AFP. “It takes very little equipment. You don’t need a whole load of coaches. It is super easy.”
According to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), in 1972, only 295,000 girls competed in high school sports across the US. By 2015-2016, that figure was 3.32 million.
“Before Title IX, women and girls didn’t have the opportunities to play sports in schools,” Neena Chaudhry, the centers general counsel and senior advisor for education, told.
“There were no athletic scholarships for women which allows many young women to go to college in the first place.
“Title IX has clearly been a driving force in opening the doors to sports for women and girls across the country,” Chaudhry added, while cautioning that “theres still a lot of work to do” in securing gender equality.
By the time the US women played their first international, in 1985, the effects of Title IX were starting to be seen.
“They had three days to practice,” Blumenthal said. “They had no money. The US federation came up with travel expenses. They had $10 a day in meal money. Just before they left they got these boxes of uniforms.
“But they were all in mens sizes. So the players had to literally hem, trim and sew their uniforms to fit them.” That first squad contained a teenage Michelle Akers-Stahl, one of the first generation of players to benefit from access to a high school soccer program.
Akers-Stahl would make history as the first American woman to score an international goal, in a 2-2 draw with Denmark.
Six years later, she finished the inaugural womens World Cup as the Golden Boot winner, scoring 10 goals as the US won the title, beating Norway 2-1 in the final.
While the seismic impact of Title IX continues to be felt, there are signs the world is catching up. Stefan Szymanski, an expert in sports economics and history at the University of Michigan, said the success of the US women’s team was attributable to both Title IX and the fact womens football had been largely ignored by established powers until recently.”
Between 1921 and 1971, the English Football Association banned women’s football.
“Those were the days when the English FA had some clout and that ban was pretty much followed by every other country in the world,” Szymanski told.
“For half a century, while football became the dominant sport globally, women were excluded from that growth.
“It’s important that that perspective is recognised. The English FA and FIFA have a lot to answer for. So when they start shouting about how great their promotion of women’s football is, they should also be reminded that they should be ashamed of what they perpetrated for half a century.”
The ban though had less effect in the United States, where soccer had already been played widely since the late 19th century.
Szymanski believes however that the US dominance will come under greater pressure as the likes of Germany, France and England continue to improve, citing China’s decline since their 1990s heyday.
“As the Chinese have faded I suspect the Americans will fade too,” Szymanski said. “But perhaps less dramatically, because the US collegiate system will preserve a pipeline of many young women playing soccer at a very high level.”