In the U.S. soccer world, the women’s game has more success than the men’s game, but rarely does it receive more attention than the men’s. This month and the months to come may change that. As the men’s team transitions to another coach and generation of players, the women’s team prepares for what may its most challenging World Cup ever. This month is also Women’s History Month and the month the USWNT players decided to file suit against their own federation for pay discrimination. All of that is to say now is a great time to relearn how far women’s soccer has come internationally and how we got to this moment.
Veteran journalist Gemma Clarke’s new book SoccerWomen: The Icons, Rebels, Stars, and Trailblazers Who Transformed the Beautiful Game tries to do just that. Drawing on her international journalistic experience and lengthy connections, Clarke weaves a narrative of the game’s history based largely on interviews with participants and players. What we get is a book that tells more of a first-person story with some historical observations woven in, especially for the more recent decades.
Clarke begins by reminding us that in the beginning women’s soccer was primarily a mating ritual. Specifically, women in Scotland in the 19th century played the game to show potential suitors their physical fitness. That is just one of the many changes in the game in the past 100 years, and Clarke skims through them with little discussion of the majority of the 20th century. Part of this is of course the lack of women to interview involved in these matches, but it also feels like a conscious decision to emphasize where the game is now. The book really begins to hit its stride with the Coca-Cola sponsored, faux-World Cup in China in the late 1980s where women’s teams gathered to show FIFA and the sports world they too could participate in a World Cup.
The book hits its stride here because we hear from participants a holistic view of being pioneers in the women’s game. We hear about the locker rooms that being called rooms is a stretch as well as fans forced to attend matches that still inspired participants. The narrative then shifts into more familiar territory for soccer fans, hitting highlights from the 1999 World Cup/” sports bra seen ‘round the world” to Japan’s upset of the U.S. after the tsunami.
Maybe because Clarke herself was born in England that the book is not strictly U.S. personalities. In fact, we get diverse perspectives including a few players from the Middle East and nations where women’s soccer is not just denigrated, but the players themselves reviled. This is the strength of the book, seeing different perspectives from our own privileged perspective. While there is certainly a disturbing imbalance between the genders in our sport in the U.S., we are miles ahead of many other nations.
The interviews themselves are also at times the weakest part of the book. It is obvious where Clarke could speak with certain players more than others, and she has some good “gets” with lengthy chapters for players like Brandi Chastain, Mia Hamm, Hope Solo, and Alex Morgan. However, there are some glaring absences like Julie Johnson Ertz and Sydney Leroux who have different stories and are key women soccer leaders. In addition, another weakness is something parents can appreciate. Some of the quotes and stories contain choice language that parents like me would not feel comfortable sharing with younger children. It does not detract from the experience for adult readers, but I did not feel comfortable giving it to my young daughter due to some of the quotes and language used. Teens probably would not flinch at some things said, however.
Despite some of these absences, this is a solid read for adults who want to prepare for the 2019 World Cup and NWSL season. It will not be the only major release on women’s soccer to come out this year, but it is a good starter to ready yourself to appreciate the World Cup in France.
SoccerWomen: The Icons, Rebels, Stars, and Trailblazers Who Transformed the Beautiful Game is available via all fine booksellers, including Amazon.
The book is available to pre-order, and will be released on April 16, 2019.