Tomorrow, in what has become an Olympic tradition, the US women will play in the Gold Medal final of the Olympic football tournament. The US have made the final every year that women have competed in football at the Olympics (1996 was the first year), and have only had to settle for silver ONCE.
The US men’s national team, by comparison have never made it to ANY medal match at the Olympics (Gold or Bronze) even though men’s national teams have been playing at the Olympics 88 years longer than the women.*
The situation is similar in the World Cup: In the 6 FIFA Women’s World Cups that have been held, the US have made it to the final three times and have won it twice. The men have had far more chances — there have been 19 FIFA World Cups for men — but the US have NEVER made it to the final.
It’s hard to resist asking: Why have US Women been so much better, relative to the rest of the world, than US Men at the world’s most popular sport?
There might be any number of factors contributing to the “achievement gap” in American soccer, but I’ve identified two broad themes that might help explain it. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but they do sound a bit contradictory.
Perhaps they can’t both be entirely true, but they certainly go some way toward explaining the US’ gender achievement gap in football.
1. Gender roles in US sports
The most lucrative sport in the US, at both the professional and collegiate level is American football. So for a young, male athlete who’s talented enough to play in any sport he chooses, there is undoubtedly strong pressure, both internally and externally, to play American football.
But American football is seen as a “man’s game” so for a similarly talented young female athlete, it’s not an option (the rise of lingerie football notwithstanding). Soccer is popularly (and inaccurately, I would add) viewed as more effete, and therefore is the corresponding choice for young women.
Because of this gendered bifurcation of talent, the US women’s national soccer team is comprised of the best and most suitable athletes, while the US men’s national team is comprised just of the most suitable athletes who weren’t interested in American football.
2. Gender parity is sports financing
Thanks to Title IX and several landmark Supreme Court rulings, high schools and universities in the US must make equal provisions for men’s and women’s athletics. Not many other countries have similar provisions, including some of the football powerhouses (on the men’s side) in southern Europe and Latin America.
So while the US are a mediocre regional power on the men’s side, we rise to the top of the global table on the women’s side because several countries that could be fielding top-class national sides fail to invest in girls’ sports.
This would explain why some other countries (say, Norway) with more gender-equal societies can be so lackluster in men’s football, but so successful in women’s.
But maybe there are other explanations…