Bridging the Talent Gap in Women's Soccer
How worried should we be about results like the 13-0 stomping delivered to Thailand by the US?
The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup has been off to a roaring start, already with its share of upsets and last-minute heroics. There is one match, though, that stands out as a blemish on an otherwise sterling group stage resume thus far. We all know which one it is: the 13-0 thrashing the United States delivered to Thailand on Tuesday.
Even as an American, that game was difficult to watch with great pride. Each successive goal felt like another dash of salt in a horribly infected wound. Results like that are hard to process. You can’t fault the US for continuing to play its game—the World Cup is no time to change your tactics out of pity—but you can’t fault Thailand either for being overpowered by a much better team. Justifications aside, the truth remains that nobody wants to see games like that, and it raises the question: is the talent gap a pressing issue in women’s soccer?
Let’s give it some historical context. The FIFA Women’s World Cup has only been around in this format since 1991, which means this is just the eighth iteration ever. It’s a young competition, and the growing pains are easily noticed. For one, it’s been a tournament dominated by a small group of nations: only four have ever won, and only ten have made it to a semi-final. Additionally, the expansion to 24 nations only just happened in 2015.
Expanding the field of teams has inevitably meant including nations on the lower end of the talent spectrum, some even having just recently legalized the sport. This ultimately opens the door for a team like Thailand, in its second-ever World Cup, to get walloped by a United States juggernaut. Still, no lopsided score can change that Thailand has two more group stage matches remaining, each one sure to provide invaluable experience for a nation trying to grow the sport. It’s give and take, and will be the same for other smaller, newer national teams wanting to elevate to the top tiers of women’s soccer.
Comparing the Women’s World Cup to its male counterpart also provides some insight on how to diagnose a result like the one on Tuesday. The first thing to consider is that the Men’s World Cup was founded in 1930, making it over 60 years older than the Women’s. Trying to assess the problems of women’s soccer through the lens of current-day men’s soccer is simply unfair. But when you look at the origins of the Men’s World Cup, the results are more encouraging. Though its first seven competitions, the results are strikingly similar: only four winners, and just 12 having made a semi-final. Worth noting, too, is that the Women’s World Cup had expanded to 24 teams by its seventh competition, a feat that took 12 competitions for the Men’s. Comparing the growth of a sport in the early-mid 20th century to one in the current day can be limited, but these trends are important to note for fans of women’s soccer—it seems to be right on track.
To answer the aforementioned question: yes, the wide talent margin between the worst and best teams is not a great look for women’s soccer. However, with the way that the sport is growing exponentially across the world, it’s hard not to look at that gap as a necessary starting block on the way to parity. Each match between the two extremes closes the divide, so maybe its nothing to lose sleep over just yet.