Vancouver: Crossing Borders
Words and photos by Zack Goldman
"One Nation, One Team."
It's a refrain that has become the abiding maxim of American soccer, from within and without—a rallying cry that speaks to a certain star-spangled togetherness and a camaraderie that no country touts as its own with such gusto. This is America's best image of itself: A kind of spiritual oneness, embracing diversity and uniting a nation under a single flag of support. It's a noble idea that rarely meshes with the realities of quotidian existence, but it has an unmistakable air of truth when Team USA tracksuits emerge. United We Stand. Together We Rise...
"One Nation, One Team."
It's a motto that, literally speaking, can belie the true weight of its own words. In plenty of places, "one nation, one team" rings perhaps even more authentically on a level of phraseology; that is to say, many nations care only about one "team" of athletes: the male ones. In a world filled with supposedly proud sporting cultures, a latent shame exists among all of them in that a full half of the population has rarely reached its full athletic potential throughout history—and, if they are lucky enough to have done so, they have trodden a littered road, pockmarked by pits of prejudice and potholes meant to be filled by opportunity.
The United States isn't exempt from that shame. However, while women's sports still trail men's significantly in terms of money, coverage, and popular interest, the gap is growing smaller—particularly in football, where both genders enjoy a strong and sound athletic architecture to scale from a young age. Well-funded grassroots environments, well-lit collegiate pathways, and well-meaning, if highly imperfect, efforts at professionalism exist in America in a way they simply do not elsewhere. More than that, though, the United States women's national team exists on a plane of legitimate celebrity that their global peers do not enjoy. In this sense, the rather clunky and inelegant phrase "One Nation, More Than One Team" perhaps more aptly illustrates how and why the country's football culture can be separated from the pack.
This sport's shame goes far beyond FIFA's scandalous den of malfeasance and iniquity, and each nation participating at the 2015 Women's World Cup carries to the tournament a comprehensive and complex history of discrimination and othering toward female footballers. Some of those countries are still actively writing more of that history, regarding the women's game—culturally, economically, and legislatively—as a complete afterthought (or worse, no thought at all). But, while women's football faces an uphill battle for attention and love in many places in 2015, the United States offers a refreshing change, at least when the national team is on. Though high tide only really arrives twice every four years, when there's an Olympiad or World Cup dominating screens and ink, the wave of support for women's football is real. Last week, as millions of Americans tuned into record-breaking telecasts, thousands upon thousands more set off northward for the border—by train, by plane, by ferry, or car, but all for the same reason: to support 23 women in their bid for a World Cup.
It's an indisputable fact that football now matters in America, and the gender of those playing doesn't. While the sport may never smother the national imagination as it does in Brazil, or England, or Germany, it doesn't need to. It's clear that the United States has already made its own unique and impactful contributions to the global game—and at the top of that list is helping to change the way women's football is played, perceived, and supported.
Just take one look at the flood of fans crashing upon Canada this month—a crowd of all ages, both genders, and in jerseys that bear the names of their favorite female athletes. It's clear from a portrait like that, that the only way is up and the only direction is forward. At the front of that movement right now is a team and fanbase in red, white, and blue (and sometimes black and lime green, for reasons unknown). It takes an example to change a culture, and at this Women's World Cup, it's the Americans and their legion of loyal supporters playing that role. Soon, though, their presence won't be singular, or even noteworthy. The phenomenon of women's football fanaticism won't be considered first and foremost an American one. In time, the refrain "One Nation, One Team" will lose its weight as our globe approaches something close to "One World, One Sport."
Words and photos by Where Is Football's Zack Goldman.