As the tears and anger over Canada’s elimination from the Women’s World Cup began to recede this past week, a predictable narrative took hold: The Canadian team had “inspired a nation”.
It’s a nice sentiment, to be sure. But here’s the thing about claiming you’ve been inspired by something—without subsequent action, “inspiration” is nothing but an empty platitude. In this case, such inaction could actually be counterproductive for the future of Canadian soccer.
There’s an ongoing misconception that soccer is a niche sport in Canada. It isn’t. Despite the lack of a national professional league on the women’s or men’s side, Canadians love the sport of soccer. It is already far and away the most popular sport for kids, both girls and boys, with thousands upon thousands more girls playing organized soccer than playing our ostensible national sport, hockey.
Little girls in Canada don’t especially need to be inspired to start playing soccer; they’re already playing it.
Also, while gender equality remains an elusive goal even in an advanced, economically prosperous nation like Canada, our cultural mores do not allow for (or, at least, do not encourage) the sort of retrograde attitudes towards female athletes that exist elsewhere in the world.
This is not to put Canada on a pedestal; rather, it’s an observation that the idea of unconditionally supporting female athletes who choose to wear our national colours is not a point of controversy here. We didn’t need this World Cup to convince our governing body to invest in the women’s program; in fact, the Canadian Soccer Association has, for years, been one of the only federations on earth to invest as much, if not more, in its women’s national team as its men’s team.
That certainly isn’t the case in many other places on this planet. And it’s why, if anything, Canada 2015 has actually served to inspire the world.
A big part of that inspiration was a byproduct of the expanded field of competing nations, as this was the first Women’s World Cup to feature 24, rather than 16, teams. That had led to some pre-tournament fears that the women’s game hadn’t sufficiently developed worldwide to make a 24-team field competitive, and that we would be awash with overmatched newcomers being embarrassingly pummelled.
There were, in all, two notable blowouts: Germany beating Ivory Coast 10-0, and Switzerland defeating Ecuador 10-1. Rather than some black mark against the women’s game, however, this sort of result simply seems to be part of the historical growing pains for senior World Cups. Back in 1982, the first time the men’s World Cup included 24 teams, Hungary defeated El Salvador by a similar 10-1 score.
For both Ivory Coast and Ecuador – a pair of teams playing in their first ever Women’s World Cup – there were also moments of encouragement. The Ivorians put up a fight in a narrow 3-2 loss to fellow debutantes Thailand. That game, it must be noted, was a transformational moment for the Thais, as it was the country’s first-ever win at a senior World Cup (Thailand has never qualified for the men’s World Cup).
Meanwhile, Ecuador – under 26-year-old head coach Vanessa Arauz -managed to hold reigning World Cup champions Japan to a 1-0 result, potentially changing some minds about the potential of female players (and managers) along the way.
Switzerland (led by fleet-footed striker Ramona Bachmann) and Cameroon (with the powerful, wild-coiffed Gaelle Enganamouit) were making their first appearances in the Women’s World Cup, and both teams made it to the knockout stages. Meanwhile Colombia, propelled by the brash and dazzling Lady Andrade, shocked the world by upsetting France en route to their own first-ever spot in the knockout round.
And it wasn’t just the newcomers who made history at this tournament.
Australia won a World Cup knockout game for the first time in its history (on the women’s or men’s side) with a surprising 1-0 win over Brazil in the Round of 16, while England’s defeat of Canada in the quarterfinals gave the Lionesses their first-ever berth in the Women’s World Cup semifinals.
As for Spain, a first-ever World Cup appearance marked a turning point for its long-ignored women’s program, with its players openly calling for the dismissal of national team manager Ignacio Quereda who has, incomprehensibly, held his job since 1988.
A tournament that’s been full of excitement and unprecedented moments for a variety of teams will, over the long term, provide inspiration for young girls around the world to take up the sport and for national federations to invest in their women’s teams and – hopefully – for societies to adjust their attitudes, in some small way.
But the question remains – what will the tournament’s legacy be for the host nation?
The most tangible legacy will be the 24 new and refurbished playing fields, made of the only suitable surface for year-round usage in a country like Canada. Beyond the World Cup venues, each of the six host cities had three training facilities installed for the tournament, which will provide untold hours of community usage in the years to come. Let’s hope Canadians can make the most of them.
Let’s also hope that Canadians are inspired to get involved at the grassroots level, to help build up the next generation of Canadian players. Our massive youth participation rates mean community clubs are always in need of coaches – specifically, people with an appreciation of the sport of soccer and a willingness to buy in to the principles of long-term player development. You don’t need to know tactics or strategies; just be willing to heed advice from the club staff, and don’t treat the kids as though they’re playing in a Stanley Cup final, and you’re already way ahead of the curve.
It would be nice – albeit unlikely – if the events of this World Cup could galvanize those in the fractured Canadian soccer community and inspire them to all work together for the betterment of the game. Yes, young girls already play the game in droves, but all stakeholders must devote themselves to building the pathway for those girls to pursue their dreams of playing at the highest level, and feed our national teams in the years to come.
If you live in Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa or Montreal, ask the owners of your local professional men’s teams whether they’d consider operating a women’s team as well. Actually, if you’re in Vancouver or Ottawa, you could ask why they disbanded their women’s teams in recent years.
And no matter where you live, consider providing financial support to our national soccer program by purchasing official Canadian team gear, patronizing the program’s various sponsors or lobbying the federal government for increased funding. Put your money where your mouth is, as the saying goes.
While the gritty play of the Canadian team activated the nationalistic warm-and-fuzzies, hopefully the technical mastery of teams like France, Germany and Japan has inspired Canadian fans to ask, “Can we do that?” The reality is that, before long, we’ll need to be able to do that just to keep our head above water.
The women’s game is moving forward, very quickly. The global field is expanding, and teams that have historically excelled on the men’s side are beginning to bring their knowledge and expertise to their women’s national programs as well. We need to prepare our teams to compete in that new environment.
It’s not enough for us to say that the Canadian team has “inspired” us, unless we are sufficiently inspired to take action and ensure that the young girls playing today actually have a chance of representing Canada at a future Women’s World Cup.
If we are content with feel-good platitudes, then the world of women’s soccer will leave us behind. And that would be a profound waste of everything that this Canadian team, and this World Cup tournament, has brought to us.