At one point in the not-so-distant past, there was no better comparison for a female professional soccer player than to be called the next Mia Hamm or Brandi Chastain.
For reference, Chastain shot to the headlines of newspapers everywhere in 1999 after the U.S. Women’s National Team won the World Cup. Her picture was everywhere, in part because she scored the winning penalty kick, and also because of her celebration. She whipped her jersey off and fell to her knees in victory — and people had a lot to say about it. The gesture, not the goal.
“There’s something primal about sport that doesn’t exist anywhere else—when you have a moment like scoring a winning goal in the World Cup championship, you are allowed to release this feeling, this emotion, this response that is not elicited anywhere else.” Chastain told BBC in defense of her “controversial” decision to flash her sports bra on a global stage. “Women’s soccer was not anonymous any more—people were talking about it.”
And although it’s true that people were talking about women’s sports with a new frequency, it was yet another example of a woman, a world-class athlete, having perhaps her greatest performance whittled down to a scandal about what she was or was not wearing. An incomparable moment of intensity and pure victory likened to a striptease.
But things have changed since then.
In this year’s World Cup, already the difference in the conversation and perception of women’s sports feels palpable. As the New York Times pointed out, this year, we have seen and heard many more of the Women’s World Cup standouts being compared to men, rather than to other women.
“If you are watching the matches, you may hear France’s best player referred to as ‘the female Zidane,’ and Sweden’s as ‘the female Zlatan Ibrahimovic,’” Times writer Victor Mather said.
Last week, Brazilian superstar, overall powerhouse and five-time world player of the year, Marta, broke the all-time scoring record for the Women’s World Cup with 15 goals. This goal, which came as a penalty kick in Brazil’s 2-0 victory over South Korea, also marked her to goal 92 in 93 games played for her country.
Many, without knowing Marta’s incredible goal history or award count, know her as “the female Pelé,” being desrcibed by Pelé himself as “Pelé in a skirt.”
Is this newfound comparison of women to men, though seemingly flattering, actually a form of condescension? Why isn’t being compared to a great phenomenal female as high of a compliment as a male professional athlete? Has Marta ever even been seen wearing a skirt?
There are certainly those, such as Dutch player Vivianne Miedema, in the sport who do not find compliment in the comments. Miedama, who is often referred to as “the female Arjen Robben.”
“Yeah, I get that a lot,” Miedema told FIFA.com. “But Arjen plays very differently to me. It’s really cool to be compared to him, but, as a woman, it’s a bit strange to always be compared to a man. I’m Vivianne Miedema, and I don’t play like men do.”
But perhaps the 18-year-old simply doesn’t remember a time when things were less equal than they are now.
As The Atlantic pointed out recently, “Before Marta, futebol feminino was nearly unheard of. Although women’s soccer had been popular in the early 1900s, with up to 40 women’s teams in Rio de Janeiro alone, it was banned in 1941, an embargo that wasn’t lifted until 1979. (The law stated that ‘women will not be allowed to practice sports which are considered incompatible to their feminine nature.’)”
But in December 2011 at a charity event, an exchange between Brazilian soccer hero Neymar and Marta shows a different side of the coin. After finishing the game they were playing, a reporter approached the high-fiving pair and referred to them both as “craque,” a term indicating the highest compliment in Portuguese.
“He’s more craque,” said Marta.
“Nah, nah,” Neymar responded. “She’s the best in the world. I am so happy to have her here, to at least have the chance to play with her.”
Perhaps this is what these comments likening women to men allow for. In order to eventually be considered equal by the world, women must start by being directly comparable. It’s not enough, surely, but it’s a step in the right direction. After all, CNN reported that in the United States at least, 3.3 million people tuned in to watch the Women’s National Team’s tournament opener against Australia, more than tripling the viewing figures from the first game at the previous World Cup.
Maybe one day soon, Marta won’t have to be compared to anybody. Everyone will just know her name.