In many ways, it would be unfair to compare men and women’s Olympic football. The men’s teams have a big international tournament that takes place the same summer as the Olympics. The women do not. Men’s teams can only field players that are considered under-23 and may have just three players older than that cutoff in their team. The women do not. Most consider the Olympics essentially the fifth or so most prestigious competition in men’s international football. The women do not.
And this isn’t a complaint. It’s nice to have the men and women playing at the same time and for it to be the women who are garnering the most attention, having the toughest match-ups and being the most fun to watch. Some will disagree with this sentiment, but to me the big football stars of this Olympics are Abby Wambach, Melissa Tancredi, and Homare Sawa (well, I’d probably take quite a few male Brazilian players, too).
There have been a lot of positives for women in this tournament, with it seeming like the British public have been rallying behind their women’s team, which was defeated by Canada in the quarterfinals. In a way, that’s remarkable. The English men’s team is a World Cup winner and a huge source of pride for the country, and yet the women’s side receives little support. Now hopefully the tide has turned.
In America, that can’t be said. The U.S. men’s team is well supported compared to how many other sports it has to compete with for attention in the States, but it has never won a major competition. When the men topped their group in 2010 and reached the quarterfinals, it was a huge achievement (even though they had gone farther in the competition before). And yet the women’s team is the real celebrated football team in America. Players like Hope Solo and Alex Morgan are just as well known and loved as the men, mostly because the team has achieved amazing success, with multiple World Cup and Olympic wins.
The rise of the U.S. women’s team is really owed to an act passed 40 years ago this year called Title IX. This law that mandated equality in education for schools that received federal funding paved the way for women in the U.S. to have the ability to receive scholarships to play sports in college, among it’s other achievements, which in its span has resulted in an estimated 450% increase in women participating in collegiate sports.  That’s not a typo.
No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance… - Title IX
This year to celebrate the 40 years since Title IX was enacted, ESPN had a TV special about its impact and had Julie Foudy on to talk about how she and the ‘99 World Cup-winning side were the “Title IX babies.” What she meant was the squad were born around the time the law was passed, and as such they were the first generation to grow up with the biggest advantages of the legislation. They were given scholarships to play the sport where money would not have been available or programs would not be in place if not for Title IX.
Its impact on soccer in America is evident when looking at college sports. While (American) football and basketball dominate the landscape, men’s soccer lags behind. The scholarships and money is spent on football, basketball and baseball for men’s sports, and the effect is quite a few of the current men’s U.S. national team were not born in the United States or played in the university system. That’s not so for the women. The majority of the team honed their skills at the university level, and it’s made them over the course of 40 years the best women’s side in the world.
There are many other great footballing countries for women, with Germany, Brazil and Japan achieving much success. But there is a notably absent presence from the women’s game, and it begs the question: Why is the men’s Spanish team possibly the most dominant side ever, but the women have never qualified for a World Cup or Olympic tournament? The only answer can be that simply no one—or very few—cares what happens to the women’s side in Spain. This is a team that has had the same head coach since 1988. Why hasn’t he been sacked for failure to compete for the two biggest titles in women’s football for almost 25 years? It goes without saying this wouldn’t stand for the men’s side today.
Interestingly, Spain actually does have a women’s league, the Superliga, which has 18 teams and was founded in 1988. However, while there is a FC Barcelona ladies team, no such side exists for Real Madrid in the Superliga, depriving the league of the country’s biggest rivalry. Still, the league is in play, which is more than can be said for the failure of a major women’s soccer league in the United States. This past season Barcelona won the Superliga title for the first time, with Rayo Vallecano, Levante, and Athletic Club being the top women’s teams over the last decade.
Would Spain benefit from a law similar to Title IX? Maybe, but at what expense? A criticism of the legislation is it takes away too much from men’s sports, which one cannot see being allowed to happen to the men’s football side. Due to colleges having to have the same proportion of female athletes as to overall female enrollment, this can eliminate men’s programs to keep the proportions correct if the money is not there. There is also the fact that many Spanish athletes are not products of the university system, but of the club youth system, which would mean Title IX would not have massive benefits if applied to educational institutions.
But something does need to change. Both Spain and the U.S. have good things in place for women in football, but they also have negatives, and in the U.S. this is affecting players domestically after they move on from college while in Spain little exists for women internationally. In America, a league needs to exist for female players, needs to be stable and needs to be backed as it deserves (which we will delve into in depth in a later piece). In Spain, the footballing federation needs to be overhauled for the women’s team. The greatest men’s national side ever needs to help put more emphasis on the women’s game, because the girls of the country who love football need a team to aspire to and root for. They can do that with the men’s team, of course, but it comes down to a quote Foudy recalled from Senator Birch Bayh, a champion of Title IX: “Why would we want any different for our daughters than for our sons?”