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When FIFA announced the Women’s World Cup would be in France in 2019, I told my husband, “We’re going.” By then, I had entered my 40s, and realizing I would never experience a maternity leave, I thought, I’m going to take a Women’s World Cup leave.
So, we planned for a year — Marie Kondo’d our house, rented it, and arranged enough work projects, airline miles, vacation, savings and unpaid leave to live abroad for nearly two months.
Watching these women on the field is intoxicating. Not just because they are so good, but also because it is like watching a team of Billy Jean Kings and Venus and Serena Williamses in action. They are a movie in the making.
When 28 players filed a federal lawsuit in March against the U.S. Soccer Federation over “institutionalized gender discrimination,” it was among several other lawsuits, protests, boycotts by women soccer players across the world pushing to equalize compensation.
If supporting all of them meant this Francophile had to travel to Europe and scooter around French bars and stadiums — oui, ja, si, yes. I will make that sacrifice.
We kicked off our journey a week before the tournament with a work trip to the Netherlands — home turf to the team that will be our opponent in the final this Sunday.
Riding bikes around the city’s canals and running around the Vondelpark, we passed several Amsterdammers wearing the team’s bright orange jersey. Our neighborhood grocery store, Albert Heijn, gave away free stacks of the Women’s World Cup schedules, complete with a large picture of its women’s “Orange Lionesses” team — another sign of the country’s dedication to their women.
By the time the tournament began on June 7, the Dutch football association had struck a deal to increase the women’s commercial compensation so they will be at the same level as the men by 2023. The boost follows other measures in increased support of the team after they won the 2017 European championship.
The U.S. women’s team has won three Women’s World Cups. They are the most accomplished in the world. Still, they are paid less than the U.S. men’s team, despite bringing in more revenue than the men since 2016, according to a recent analysis by the Wall Street Journal. The best finish of the men’s team was in 1930, when they reached the semifinals.
We watched the USA’s first game, the 13-0 thrashing of Thailand, on Dutch TV. That domination would be an omen for the controversy and entertainment that would make this tournament so exhilarating.
I found out too late that my “pas de problem” attitude about no air conditioning dating from 20 years ago when I studied abroad in Paris had no relevance today as the thermometer outside our living room window ticked up to 39.5 degrees Celsius (103 degrees Fahrenheit) during France’s historic heat wave.
For the USA vs. Spain game, we met a French-American friend and her Parisian police brother at a FIFA “fan zone” in the center of Paris at Chatelet les Halles. We found out her brother is working as undercover security scouring the soccer crowds for potential terrorists. Watching the groups of French military and police, I become more cognizant of the significant investment the French have made in keeping all the fans safe.
After the win against Spain, we took a quick two-day business trip to Berlin. The bartender at a sports bar near our hotel told me, “Women’s soccer is stupid.” I countered by imitating the European “drama” of male soccer players after so-called injury. But that night, the bartender and a room full of men are watching the England vs. Norway Women’s World Cup match on the large screen.
We were back in Paris for the “Le Grand Match” quarterfinal game between the USA and France. My 30 euro tickets were then going for 15 times that on the secondary market. My husband asked whether we shouldn’t look at selling. I gave him the same look as I did the German bartender.
The atmosphere inside the stadium was unlike anything I had ever experienced at any sports game, and I grew up in Texas going to “church” at University of Texas football games. The French are clearly way more experienced in soccer fan chants, drowning out our “U-S-A” attempts.
One section unfurled a picture of Marianne, the personification of liberty and the French Revolution. But we have our own Marianne. She’s called Megan Rapinoe. “Pinoe” is a symbol of the USA’s ever-evolving and often contentious fight for equality. She has stood silent during the national anthem in protest against the treatment of LGBT and African Americans. The only 20 seconds we weren’t deafened from the French were the 10 seconds after each Rapinoe goal.
After the USA’s 2-1 ousting of the host country, things changed.
Bathed in USA war paint of red, white and blue across our faces, we went to the same cafe we had drinks at after the Chile game. A group of French men hesitated to sit next to us, one murmuring to the other, “It’s not like we’re going to talk to them.”
The British tabloids feature headlines like “Arrogant Americans.” I get it. We’ve won three Women’s World Cup titles. They’ve won none.
But really, the women’s team is the David versus Goliath sports story of our time and one of the most apparent examples sexism in our world. The fact that such deep divides of compensation exist in the United States, where women have it vastly better than most other countries, is telling.
The dynasty they have built since losing their first international tournament wearing hand-me-down uniforms from the men’s team in the 1980s is well told by the author Caitlin Murray in her book published in April called “The National Team.”
For the semifinal game against England, the Americans were so despised that the French in the bar rooted for their favorite enemy — the “rosbif” as they call the English, so nicknamed for what the French consider their neighbor’s poor food choices.
Alas for the French, the U.S. women again edged ahead and my husband and I, betting on the women, have tickets to the final in Lyon this Sunday. They are now going for four times their initial price tag. We’re not selling.