Sporting Equality

It’s not so easy to follow women’s soccer, but I’m inclined to try. The plucky Canuck women, about whom I wrote last Thursday, came achingly close to beating the mighty Americans – two-time World Cup champs, second-ranked team in the world – in the finals of the Gold Cup yesterday in California.

Both teams are headed for the 2007 World Cup, but this was another chance for the Canadian girls to break the domineering spell of Big Sister to the south. We’ve only ever beaten the Yanks three times in women’s play, compared to a long sheet of losses. Just a month or so ago, the States won 1-0 in the final of a Korean tournament, and yesterday was a 2-1 result decided by a penalty late in overtime. Canadian coach Even Pellerud had already been booted from the match in regulation time when Kristine Lilly hit the American winner in the final minute before going to penalty kicks.

The red and white are getting closer. “We produced more pressure than ever before,” Pellerud said. “They needed 120 minutes to beat us on a doubtful (penalty). I am very proud of what [we] did. It was fantastic.” With both teams advancing anyway, Canada obviously has more at stake in a game like this. Every time they play the Americans, it’s like a World Cup final, whereas the motivation of the dominators can’t be quite so great. Still, a revamped American team has managed to lengthen its record international undefeated streak to 32 games.

In women’s hockey, a similar dynamic is present but inverted, with Canada as Queens of the ice castle and a very good American squad ever ready to knock them off it. One big difference: nobody else in the world can really compete with the U.S. and Canada. Part of the greatness of the soccer rivalry is that it takes place in the context of world play which, though not yet as widely competitive as men’s football, still has at least five teams (maybe half a dozen, if you include the red ‘n’ white) that can realistically compete for a World Cup.

The greatest opportunities for sporting girls and women exist in North America, but the trend is spreading. (But how long will it be before African women’s sides can compete as their male counterparts are beginning to in world soccer? There are so many obstacles specific to women, and so much to be done in so many places before girls playing becomes possible, let alone a priority. But soccer is the game for the poor.) European sides are very strong, with the Germans and the Norwegians having won a Cup, the East Asian countries are rapidly improving, and the women’s soccer world can hear the South American women coming on. (But will they ever be as dominant as they are in beauty contests? Pardon me for noticing, but a Chilean woman just won the Miss Earth contest — beauty and environmental consciousness, apparently — and the Latinas rock the tiara world these days. Okay, back to the game.)

The growth of gender equality when it comes to giving girls “a sporting chance” is one of the good things the world has going for it. Kudos to the Canadians for helping to lead the way.

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