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Parents Blog

Susan Boyd blogs on USYouthSoccer.org every Monday.  A dedicated mother and wife, Susan offers a truly unique perspective into the world of a "Soccer Mom". 

 

Never a Sure Thing

Susan Boyd

I assumed Memorial Day weekend would be the usual mix of tournament games, lunches out and sunburns. We weren’t disappointed on any front. One grandson’s team won the consolation bracket and the other lost in the semis of the winner’s bracket. We ate wings, steaks, sub sandwiches, pizza, and drank a fair amount of Starbucks — the tournament parents’ elixir. Overall, it was a satisfying competition. However, something happened that dominated the soccer news. The U.S. Men’s National Team roster for the World Cup was announced, and Landon Donovan was left off. The pundits went wild. Donovan was hoping to play in his fourth World Cup, the first American male player to do so. American woman Kristine Lilly has played in five, and Joy Fawcett, Julie Foudy and Mia Hamm have each played in four. At 32, Donovan could still possibly make the 2018 roster, but it would be highly unlikely. His World Cup dreams ended last Thursday, barring an injury to a rostered player.           

Why is this story so significant? There are several reasons. The U.S. has an extremely difficult group from which it will probably not emerge. The team has new leadership in Jurgen Klinsmann. Donovan has been a proven goal-scorer and assist-maker. He is well-liked and respected by fellow players. He has a strong work ethic. Finally, he is a symbol of U.S. Men’s soccer to hundreds of thousands of fans.             

The U.S. World Cup group, nicknamed “The Death Group,” includes Portugal, Ghana and Germany. Only two teams advance, and on the basis of experience, skill and history, the U.S. is the least likely to move on. Germany has been in the finals seven times and has won three times. In the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, Ghana was in the Round of 16 and the Quarterfinals, respectively. In a mirror-image of Ghana, Portugal made the Quarterfinals in 2006 and the Round of 16 in 2010. The U.S. team made the Round of 16 in 2010, finishing 12th, behind Portugal (11th), Ghana (seventh) and Germany (third). Our national team is definitely the underdog in group play. Therefore, reporters and fans argue that the team needs the steadying influence that Donovan can bring to the competition. Forwards Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey are both weathered players in the international scene, but Altidore is well-known to be inconsistent. Donovan could provide some stability even from the bench, an intangible benefit of having him on the roster. Like Dempsey, Donovan can play several positions, giving the team flexibility should it face injuries during the World Cup. Since only two teams can advance from the group, the U.S. needs to have at minimum a win and a strong goal differential. Donovan could be the player who delivers what is needed, as he has in past competitions.            

Bob Bradley had been the national team coach, who was well-respected by his players. When he was replaced in late July 2011 by the German, Jurgen Klinsmann, there was some immediate suspicion from veteran players. Landon Donovan didn’t completely mesh with Klinsmann, a situation only made worse by Donovan taking a four month sabbatical from soccer in 2012 — after his club team, the LA Galaxy, won the MLS Championship and just prior to the national team entering the final qualifying rounds for the World Cup. Klinsmann found Donovan’s reasons, “exhaustion and mental stress,” ridiculous and a show of weakness. He’s always felt that Landon was soft on the field, which stems from his days coaching him at Bayern Munich in 2009. The sabbatical indicated to Klinsmann that Donovan lacked commitment, a word that the German believes is the most important factor in soccer. Needing to take the reins firmly when it comes to the World Cup, Klinsmann probably saw Donovan is an antagonist to his leadership despite the player’s continual support of the coach’s vision. Sarcastically, Bruce Arena, a former national team coach said, “If there are 23 players better than Landon, then we have a chance to win the World Cup.” Ironically, Klinsmann invited Donovan to rejoin the team after his sabbatical and just in time for two significant qualifying games against Costa Rica and Mexico. In the must-win Mexico game, his corner kick assist on Eddie Johnson’s header and his goal against Mexico helped insure the U.S. World Cup qualification despite a 3-1 loss to Costa Rica.              

That performance was only one of the many clutch performances Donovan has delivered. In addition, his five World Cup goals are equal to the World Cup goals scored by Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie combined. In fact, Donovan has scored more World Cup goals than any other CONCACAF player. He scored the game-winning goal in injury time for a key win against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup. He is the first MLS player to reach both 50 goals and 50 assists. He has more goals than any other national team player in history and passed Cobi Jones’ assist record. He has the most caps (international games) of all active national team players. Of his five World Cup goals, three came in the last World Cup. This pedigree might have been enough to earn him a spot on the roster, but Klinsmann passed over other previous World Cup veterans, choosing instead to go with a younger squad, perhaps thinking about 2018. The choice to drop those players could be easily defended, but Donovan’s snub is more problematic. Nevertheless, Klinsmann argued that the players he selected were just a “bit better” than Donovan, never specifying what those attributes were.              

The intangibles Donovan brings to the game can’t be discounted. He has the respect of his peers, so he has the ability to encourage them to a win even when in a hole. The U.S. may well need to come from behind in several World Cup games, so we’ll need the calming influence of player who has not only been there but overcome that. Donovan, through his dangerous scoring reputation, has the ability to pull defenders to him while leaving other players open to score. Just being on the field could be an important factor in the U.S. getting out of group play. Klinsmann may have felt that the gravity Donovan brings to the pitch wasn’t sufficient to overcome any weakness in play that Klinsmann saw at camp. Or the coach may have completely discounted the intangibles. There is one more factor that Donovan brings to the table — fans. He is arguably the best known national team player, especially for young fans. That monetary team support comes with the purchase of official gear and mementoes and in viewership that ups ad revenue in which the team shares. There probably won’t be much reduction in fans watching since it is the World Cup after all, but there may be a decrease in the purchase of gear unless the team creates a new hero. Donovan also knows the ins and outs of all the teams in our group. He’s played with or against most of the primary players, as have Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, DeMarcus Beasley and Michael Bradley. Having extra experience on the pitch can only augment what those latter players bring. Donovan has been a complementary player to these teammates for years, so he knows their style of play, where they will be off the ball, and where he should be to maximize their talents. Together, they understand how to move around their opponents.             

Despite how his sabbatical may contradict this, he has a strong work ethic. Actually his intensity to train and be the best he can be on the field probably led to the need for a break. He admits he’s not as young as many of the players brought into the pool, so he may not be perfect day after day of training, but he’ll keep at it and always keep improving. He has great fitness and the willingness to work on that fitness daily. Additionally, he encourages other players to up their fitness and skills both through example and actual prompting. He has started in literally hundreds of games and has played professional soccer since age 17, as well as his national team appearances. He regularly plays 70 to 90 minutes a game, and will stay in the game through overtimes. On top of his playing schedule, he participates in dozens of personal appearances and camps promoting the game to young players and fans. He has done interviews after miserable losses with dignity and poise. He has been the public face of the national team for over a decade.            

I am guessing less than a day after he was left off the roster he was preliminarily signed by ESPN as a commentator.  He speaks Spanish, so he could even be an analyst for Univision.  Since playing on the national team provides no income, Donovan will definitely benefit financially should he go the broadcast route. Still, I think if you asked him whether he’d rather make money or play in the World Cup, he wouldn’t even hesitate to answer World Cup play. While no one wishes an injury on any player, Donovan would be happy to step in should that unfortunate event occur. He’ll be in Brazil as a player, a fan, or a broadcaster, but he’d much rather be a player.           

What lesson does this hold for young soccer players? Nothing is for sure. No matter how good you may be or think you may be, coaches, scouts and referees have their own perspectives. Your abilities could be top-notch but not fit into the tactical plan a coach has or the hole a scout needs to fill on a college or pro team. When our kids don’t make the team they really wanted or sit on the bench, it may have less to do with their skills than with a bigger picture that doesn’t include them. One way to offset that possibility is to make themselves as versatile a player as they can. Robbie is a forward who has played midfield and even defense when the team needed it. Bryce is a goalkeeper who has played forward, and scored a fair share of goals when the coach called on him. Kids who can be slotted into several positions end up having more playing time and more security when it comes to tryouts. It’s fun to be the starring goal scorer, but if the team is occasionally lacking a strong center midfielder to distribute the ball to a striker, the coach may opt for a player who can fill both roles. Teams need to have flexibility, so players need to work on adaptability. Donovan was a versatile player, but he also needed to have the respect and trust of the coach. Parents can encourage our children to listen to the coach, not be contentious, and be supportive of other players and the coach’s vision. Likewise, parents should not be confrontational with the coach. If we feel our kids are being overlooked for their talents, then we should consider a team switch. An entire team and/or club has no obligation to change to accommodate our child. We may not agree that our kids should be snubbed, just as thousands of fans and pundits don’t agree that Donovan should have been snubbed. However, the reality is that the coach and the team management have the right to make choices that seem odd, unreasonable and even stupid, that we have to accept. That’s a tough lesson, but learning it helps our kids navigate through lots of life’s twists and turns. The one sure thing is that nothing is certain.

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I’m Going to Disneyland

Susan Boyd

By a show of hands, how many of your kids had a soccer game on Mother’s Day? Wait! Let me ask this another way, how many of your kids did NOT have a soccer game on Mother’s Day? Just as I thought — that was much easier to count. We parents learn early on that holidays are just more open days to hold soccer events. In fact, on Memorial Day weekend we are headed to a double tournament in Columbus, Ohio, which is just one of around 18 Memorial Day weekends we have spent cheering on the sidelines. I’m certain we have all sacrificed many a holiday or school break for soccer while struggling with the added dilemma of missing school to fulfill travel soccer obligations. Juggling the sanity of family with the demands of youth soccer and the additional demands of other activities, including several children’s needs in the mix can create stress just when we should be relaxing.             

We want soccer to be fun and that means fun for everyone in the family. Taking family vacation and holiday time to fulfill soccer obligations has to be balanced with those siblings who aren’t playing. We were really lucky because both our sons played soccer and often attended the same tournaments, so the times we had to separate during vacations and holidays were few. Nevertheless, the pressure to march in line with the club’s demands can put amazing stress on a family. Parents willingly sacrifice breakfast in bed on Mother’s Day to get to an 8 a.m. game or forego a family barbeque on Father’s Day. But our kids don’t understand when all their friends are going to Disney World or to a resort on a lake for spring break, they’re roaming the sidelines in Indianapolis while big sis has a tournament. Not exactly the warm and fuzzy family memories kids hope for. How do we balance our lives to provide not only those memories, but the competition our kids crave when they are passionate about soccer?             

A really wonderful answer is to attend tournaments in vacation hotspots. Disney offers amazing tournaments that unfortunately are also very competitive to enter. Still, I always encourage clubs to give it a try. You never know when they will need one more U-14 boys team to round out the brackets. Applying isn’t all that difficult and, if you aren’t accepted, costs you nothing. Your club can research tournaments in the general vicinity of Orlando, even if you can’t get into a Disney event. US Youth Soccer maintains a database of sanctioned tournaments where you can input the dates and locations you want to check on. Likewise, Soccer America has a database with search parameters. Inputting “soccer tournaments” into your search engine will produce dozens of options. If you can find a tournament that allows the family to vacation while competing, it’s a win-win for everyone.             

Finding a great tournament is one thing, but finding appropriate housing can be difficult. Our sons’ club played in a Tampa area tournament every spring break. We were lucky to get a great deal with a golfing resort. The rooms were all apartments with full kitchens for less than we’d pay at a motel in the area. We got cut rates on greens fees, and the four amazing pools made great places for teams to gather and unwind. You can designate someone in your club to research hotels and resorts as there are often exceptional deals in off-seasons with large bookings. You could possibly score rooms in otherwise far too exclusive resorts and hotels. Tournaments will generally help by providing a list of hotels, although on the downside, some may demand that you book through them. You’ll have to be creative to avoid the requirements, but it can be done. An advantage of an entire club at the same tournaments is that families can easily travel together. Bryce and Robbie both played throughout their youth years in clubs that sent multiple teams to tournaments. That policy also helps with the coaching situations saving money on coach travel and housing and allowing coaches to help one another out when scheduling conflicts arise.            

I’ve written before about researching the area where you are traveling for a tournament and finding family activities for the off-times. Most tournaments are held in metropolitan areas, so you can avail yourself of museums, sports teams, malls and theaters. We’ve been able to visit a dozen MLB parks over the course of our soccer journeys, interesting museums, and some unusual natural sites like a dinosaur field in Denver, Indian mounds in La Crosse, and caves in Kentucky. You can use your travels to explore different ethnic restaurants and communities. We’ve eaten Hungarian, Ethiopian, Moroccan and Mongolian on our trips. Not all were hits, but they certainly made solid memories. Just finding a hotel with a good pool, fitness center and/or game room can make a big difference to those siblings who aren’t playing. Bonding with families on other club teams means that you might be able to leave kids behind in their care and reciprocate later in the day when they need help.            

This is also a good plan for overall participation. We wanted to attend all our kids’ games, but realistically that can’t always happen. Picking some games and trips to opt out of in favor of the other children in the family can help ease the resentment that “it’s always about soccer.” We often brought along teammates on our trips to help out their families. Because we were lucky enough to have both our kids in the same sport at the same tournaments, we didn’t often have the conflicts of family time vs. soccer time. So we were happy to help out and more than willing to take others up on their offer to do the same if we needed it. As the boys got older, we ended up renting two hotel rooms — one for grown-ups and one for the kids — which was as much for our sanity as for modesty. We never ran into anyone taking advantage of the situation by sneaking out or bringing in illegal substances, but that’s probably because Bryce and Robbie weren’t shy about disapproving and the kids we brought along weren’t really the rebel type. Having guests with us actually made our trips smoother as we were all on good behavior and conversations during meals ended up being lively and engaging. One tournament we went to a restaurant that served all kinds of unusual foods like gator bites, frog legs, snails, rattlesnake, bison burgers and pickled sea urchin. We ordered some of each and had lots of great laughs as the boys around the table tried (or refused to try) each delicacy. We probably wouldn’t have done that with just our kids, but having three additional “victims” emboldened us to order freely.             

When it comes to missing school, the issues get murky. Even great students can fall behind missing just a few days of instruction. Each family has to decide for itself what works and what won’t work. The difficulty is that as teams become more diverse and don’t just include kids from the same community, you open yourself up to various vacation schedules. Spring break for some teammates doesn’t coincide with the break for others. Therefore, clubs will commit to tournaments that may or may not mesh with your child’s days off. We hope that clubs will be flexible and understand the need to meet the expectations of education over the requirements of soccer. Unfortunately, some clubs can be very dogmatic about kids attending events or they risk being benched. This makes it imperative that at tryouts you find out what the tournament or league game schedules will be and how well they mesh with the school calendar, along with establishing what will be the consequences for missing a team event in favor of school. School isn’t the only consideration. There can be other important conflicts such as confirmation, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, significant religious holidays (often Yom Kippur and Easter can be interrupted by soccer), and commitments to other activities like 4H or drama club. Since most kids aren’t going to go on to college or pro, and many won’t even play high school soccer, it seems unhealthy to focus solely on soccer. I take commitment quite seriously, but I also consider a happy childhood as important. We parents should never be afraid to err on the side of normalcy when it comes to conflicts.           

In the end, we want our children to look back on their youth as a happy, fulfilling time. When they are passionate about soccer, giving up holidays and vacations to attend soccer events might not be particularly unpleasant. But for the other family members, those disruptions might be frustrating and miserable. We need to keep in mind that no one individual’s activities should continually overshadow any other individual’s activities. We can’t be perfect, but we can certainly try to find a balance. Sending our soccer kids in the company of other families or with club chaperones can help us give attention to our other kids. When we do take the family to soccer events, we may be missing a trip to Disney, but we might also find an adventure that will be far more priceless and memorable. It’s how we invest in the experience that enriches it for our clan.

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Fame – Remember My Name

Susan Boyd

Do you remember Freddy Adu? He’s the phenomenal youth player who, at age 14, became the youngest player to earn an MLS contract in 2003. For the next five years things went well for him. He played a significant role with D.C. United and Real Salt Lake before being picked up by Benefica in Portugal. But at the ripe old age of 19, he began to see his soccer career unravel. He was loaned out to four lower tier European teams with minimal success, then returned to the MLS in 2011, playing two seasons with the Philadelphia Union. Bahia in Brazil picked him up, but he made just two appearances. His time on the U.S. Men’s National Team extended from 2006 to 2011, with only 17 appearances. He was off the squad all of 2010, which was a World Cup year. Presently, he is training with Blackpool F.C., which is a second-tier English team, but the side decided against offering him a contract. He’s had overtures from the NASL’s Atlanta Silverbacks but is hoping for a European team to pick him up.            

His story is one of the cautionary tales that come from youth sports. Parents hear about someone like Adu, and we may immediately begin comparing our own child against the big news. These unusual players create the belief that the brass ring of playing professionally sits just outside our child’s reach. With the right break, continued on-field success and the proper exposure, our kid could be the next Sporting News headline. The question is: Do we really want this to all come so soon? Adu had and undoubtedly still has exceptional talent. But once he signed a contract, his life switched from developing those talents to exercising them solely for the profit of team owners. When he ceased providing that profit, either through assisting a winning season or drawing fans with publicity, he ceased being relevant in the sport he loves. Two of my grandsons will be 14 this year and I can’t imagine either one of them capable of handling the pressures of being on a pro team. They would be out of their element as it relates to family, peers and age-appropriate social life. There are some rare kids who can step into that arena, but when we look at them years later we can see the toll it took on their lives. Just consider all the child actors who have imploded.            

Too often parents have the mistaken impression that the window of opportunity to make the top echelons of soccer is small and comes really early in a player’s growth. This perception gets fed by YouTube videos, media reports and rumors. We can watch young players juggle a ball 200 times with lots of trick moves or 10-year-olds dodging adult players on the way to scoring a goal. We wonder if perhaps we should be promoting our own children showcasing their skills for the world to see on the off-chance they will catch a scout’s eye. Certainly, even if we aren’t pushing our pre-teens into a pro career, we do end up needing to publicize them when it comes to college recruiting. Therefore, navigating the waters of soccer exposure becomes justified. We know we have to do it, so why not do it earlier? We might just hit the jackpot.             

According to research done by Georgia State University and NCAA statistics, the chances of a high school soccer player eventually becoming a professional player is .08 percent, which is eight players out of 100,000 or one in 12,500. To put that into perspective, a team of 22 players will have someone go pro every 568 seasons. Even spreading this out among all the high schools in your city, you’re still looking at one every 30 to 40 seasons at best in the entire community. Our children would not only have to be the best out of 12,500 players at their age level, but also be lucky enough to be scouted and selected. Signing as a pro doesn’t insure someone will play as a pro. Lots of players get the call but only few hang on to the contract. A friend’s nephew, B.J. Tucker, was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys out of Wisconsin in 2003. He went in the sixth round (178th overall) because in addition to his football skills, he ran track. His speed earned him a nod, but only a nod. He bumped around the NFL, joining the rosters of four different teams between August and September in 2003 alone. His only playing time came through the Seahawks when he was loaned to an NFL Europe team. Otherwise, he was either on practice squads or simply released. In 2008, he was signed by the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League with limited special teams play. He’s “retired” now without much savings. He had promise but couldn’t turn that into a contract. His story is the one most young athletes face even when drafted by a pro team.             

Then there is Freddy Adu, who achieved the dream only to see it disappear all too quickly. We can speculate on what happened. Perhaps he was too young, perhaps he didn’t get big enough to sustain his power on the field, perhaps he was excellent for a 14-year-old but not so special for a 20-year-old, or perhaps he burned out — unable to handle the pressure to succeed. Whatever happened, it happens to many a young player. Unfortunately for Freddy, his world-wide fame made his struggles very public, another burden for him to shoulder. His celebrity also contributes to his inability to make the best choices for his future. Having played at the top levels for years, including going to the 2008 Olympics, it’s demoralizing for him to find himself starting over at a lesser level of pro soccer. His career won’t be helped by riding the bench on a top European team although it will soothe his ego. He needs playing time and further development to find his professional footing. I’ve always said that kids should play on the best team where they will be a starter. That’s a difficult choice for parents and their children who favor status over development. However, I can offer scores of examples of youth players who didn’t play on the top team in their community then went on to play at a junior college transferring to a Division I school and earning an invite to the MLS combine. Everyone develops on a different schedule. What matters is being the fittest, most developed player when the scouts are watching. Youth players can grow into that position, most likely not at 14 and possibly not even at 20, but if they have passion they can fight to move into the professional ranks.            

I can use my oldest son as an example. He played on a lackluster youth team, but as a goalkeeper, weak defense afforded him opportunities to showcase his talents, which he did at the Dallas Cup just four months before his first year of college. He had despaired of being able to play college soccer since only one school had shown interest, but he did not feel comfortable when he visited. However, from his performance at the Dallas Cup (actually from one game there) he was recruited at truly the last minute to play in San Francisco. Then he struggled during his college career, eventually transferring to UW-Milwaukee. Once his eligibility ran out, he bounced around playing for adult teams in the Milwaukee area, until, using all the networking he could muster, he got himself a chance to practice with the pro indoor team. At the end of this season, he was signed for the last month and a half. It’s a start for him. Whether it will result in bigger options, who knows. He didn’t make the splash of a Freddy Adu, but he’s in a position to advance. Achieving a professional career has as much to do with passion for the sport as it does with athleticism and skill. To make himself stand out, he has to work on his fitness constantly, not just during team practices, do daily training in drills and practice kicks, and he keeps up with what is going on in the world of soccer, always looking for openings.            

When we think of soccer superstars, we are looking at the top 20 players in the world. Their level of success involved some luck and lots of hard work, not to mention innate athletic abilities. Some of the stars began blazing at a young age, some later. Parents need to understand how unusual and difficult it is to make it to the top. As parents, we can’t isolate some accomplishment from our child’s soccer history as proof that they have what it takes to go pro. In Robbie’s first high school game, he fired a bullet shot from 35 yards out over the head of the keeper into the back of the net. He never again duplicated that shot, but he played in college with a teammate who did it regularly. Robbie’s hallmark skill became dribbling down to the corner and making really dangerous crossing shots or passes that goalkeepers had difficulty handling. However, that skill wasn’t fully developed until early in his college years. Despite his speed and agility, which might get him a pro tryout, he’s opted to fill out his med school applications and move onto the next phase of his life. He’d been down that “you can be a star” road already. When he was 14, he was invited to try out for the Youth National Team. He broke his foot the week before the tryout but went anyway. About three days into the event, the coach came to him and said, “Boyd, I thought you were fast.” Robbie explained about his foot, but no one cared. He had to perform at his top level right then and he couldn’t. I wonder what we would have done had he been invited to join the National Pool. How would we have balanced the excellent education he was getting at the Catholic high school in Milwaukee against the possibility of making a National Team roster? Two years after his tryout, one of his high school teammates made the pool and left school to train in Bradenton. Within a year he was released, but he couldn’t transfer back to the high school, so he finished out his education in Florida and then went to play for George Washington University.             

Robbie’s story, his teammate’s story, Bryce’s story and Freddy Adu’s story are all similar. Freddy went the furthest, but he doesn’t have a college degree and, not yet 25-years-old, doesn’t have a team. Robbie will go to medical school, his teammate has a job in finance, Bryce has about one more year to try and make it as a pro before he has to switch to a more traditional career, and Freddy is hoping (without a basis in reality) to get back in the U.S. National Team picture. Dreams are important, fame is fabulous, and success feels wonderful, but in the world of sports, all of that can be fleeting. We do best by our children not to overcommit them to a life of striving for athletic honors. Yes, our sports figures are idolized unlike someone who cures polio or negotiates peace settlements, but the latter have a far more significant impact on the world despite being achieved without the rabid groupies and lucrative endorsements. The names of team power players may hang from the upper decks and rafters of arenas, but the real fame is found in those who make an indelible difference in the quality of our lives. 

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Cutting Edge

Susan Boyd

Perhaps because it is a world-wide sport or perhaps because it has a long history, but soccer has managed to stay at the forefront when it comes to women’s issues. As a bellwether of women’s social advances, soccer either precedes them or supports them. In 1894, Nettie Honeyball founded the British Ladies Football Club, which played vigorous and popular games throughout Great Britain. They used the men’s association fields and often had crowds topping 45,000, larger than the men’s teams were mustering. As Honeyball said, "I founded the association late last year, with the fixed resolve of proving to the world that women are not the ‘ornamental and useless’ creatures men have pictured. I must confess, my convictions on all matters where the sexes are so widely divided are all on the side of emancipation, and I look forward to the time when ladies may sit in Parliament and have a voice in the direction of affairs, especially those which concern them most." Clearly, she saw the link between soccer and women’s rights. Her philosophy of the intertwining of sports and women’s rights soon got vindication — only negatively. Citing that women playing the game was “unseemly,” the Football Association in 1921 forbid women’s teams to use the men’s fields, a ban that lasted 50 years. Nevertheless, there has been a women’s season of soccer in Great Britain every year since 1894 to the present. And the political status of women has steadily improved.             

The international community was slower in accepting women in the sport, only sanctioning Olympic participation in 1996. Women’s basketball, on the other hand, found a strong supportive home in the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), which not only recognized women’s participation in the contests, but set up the first international competition in 1953 — which has continued every four years since. The Olympics added women’s basketball to the games in 1976. Women’s soccer had to struggle a bit more to gain the sanctioning of the world’s soccer association, FIFA. Non-FIFA leagues existed in the 1960s, formed by women in countries such as England, Germany, Mexico and India. Despite the restrictive regulations unsympathetic to women, teams flourished using rugby grounds when soccer pitches were prohibited to them. Germany, Brazil, France and England all had long stretches where they banned women’s soccer in their countries. Nevertheless, women persevered, circumventing the restrictions through creative choices in where they played and how they organized. In 1970, the first World Cup was played in Italy, as Denmark defeated Italy, 2-0. The second was in 1971 in front of 100,000 fans in Mexico between Denmark (3) and Mexico (0). Amazingly, although FIFA likes to brag about the 90,800 who attended the Women’s World Cup final at the Rose Bowl in 1999 as the largest audience for a women’s sporting event, they were nearly 10,000 off the mark. Interestingly, FIFA did sponsor a contest in April 1971 between France and The Netherlands in front of only 1,500 fans. FIFA celebrated this event in 2011 as the 40th anniversary of women’s international competition, touting its amazing growth during those years, even though that anniversary isn’t even remotely correct in the real world of women’s international soccer.             

In other areas of the game, soccer has been a leader concerning women. FIFA certification to referee is not gender-specific, although few women have been called up to officiate at men’s games. The first women referees in the MLS began in 1998, in 2004 a woman oversaw a men’s World Cup qualifier, and women now routinely get the call to ref at level two of men’s professional leagues in Europe. FIFA’s rules require that anyone wanting to be certified to officiate at international games must first do so at the highest level in their own country. In the U.S., that meant the MLS, but as women have developed stronger, more stable professional leagues, female refs can get their experience there. In all cases, FIFA referees must retire at age 45 and few referees make a living at their craft. Think about that the next time you scream at a referee — he or she is most likely doing the job out of love for the sport, while surrounded by multi-millionaire players. In other male-dominated sports, women have not made headway as much as they have in soccer. During the 2012 NFL referee lock-out, Shannon Eastin, who has officiated minor league football games, got called up to be a line judge. Once the lock-out was resolved, Eastin got booted. In 1997, the NBA allowed Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner to ref games, but only Palmer still does. In the MLB, one woman, Bernice Gera, has called a Class A game in 1972 but she had to sue the league for the opportunity. She was followed by Pam Postema, who umpired spring training games beginning in 1989, although she was eventually fired. Ria Cortesio also umpired exhibition games in 2007. That same year, she was denied further promotion and was released by MLB. In fact, in the U.S., only 10 women officiate at men’s professional sports games. At one time, there were three women officials in the MLS, but all have retired.             

The final frontier for women in a men’s world would be coaching, and this week Clermont Foot, a second tier club in France, hired Helena Costas to take the reigns as manager at the end of the season. Costas has been the coach of the women’s national teams in Qatar and Iran, so she has plenty of experience surviving in male-dominated cultures. She recently stated, “I opened a door today and more women will walk through on my back.” Besides coaching, she has served as a scout for the Scottish men’s club Celtic and, for 13 years, has been the manager of one of Portugal’s Benfica boys’ teams. Claude Michy, the president of Clermont Foot, has been surprised by the interest in Costa’s hiring, because “in the world there are lots of women in important positions…But because it’s football — something global and still rather conservative…it creates a media earthquake.” Fabien Farnolle, a goalkeeper on the team, said, “On a personal note, I feel everything that goes in the direction of progress — away from discrimination against race, gender or religion — is positive.” Hopefully more clubs will share in that opinion. Looking just at France, there are few women agents, and no female club presidents or head coaches. Costa breaks this barrier with a strong soccer history, including her 13 years with Benfica, directing the Qatar and Iran Women’s National Teams, and as a holder of the UEFA Pro License, the highest level available to European soccer coaches. Being a woman wasn’t a significant factor in her hiring, although it was a factor. The front office was looking for a top-level experienced coach who could bring some excitement to a team that is overshadowed by rugby in their town. Her gender adds some spark, but her credentials insure the promise of success.       

The strength of women’s soccer needs to be matched by the strength of women in soccer. While the U.S. has one of the most powerful programs in the world, that has not transferred over in terms of coaching, officiating, scouting and ownership with men’s teams. There is no social law that requires men and women to crossover in terms of power, but given that the opportunities for advancement, monetary compensation and exposure give the edge to the men, it would be wonderful to see those prospects shared equally. Even the female referees argue that having experience with both men’s and women’s games improves their skills. Considered one of the best, most experienced soccer referees in the world without regard to gender, Karen Seitz argues that men need to work women’s games and women need to work men’s games to get the most accumulated knowledge of the craft. Sandy Hunt, who retired several years ago and works as a referee assessor, sees her impact as a woman in a predominately male profession in universal terms. “When you’re the only one doing it, you’re holding the door open for the other women who want a chance. All I want to do is advance the ball. I don’t feel I need to score a goal. If I can just keep my foot in the door and do a solid job, people — men or women, maybe of color, minorities or whatever — should get just as fair a chance.” This responsibility of the sport to promote cutting edge policies not only helps soccer advance, but also opens doors for far-ranging participants in the sport. The more we pursue these advanced programs, the more we ensure equality and strength in the game.

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