Abby Wambach : One of the Greatest Football Players of All Time

December 2015 was the month Abby Wambach retired from playing professional soccer, what I call football. I read some articles about her by her teammates, here and there. I thought she must be an extraordinary woman.

from Wikipedia

The first time I heard of and saw Abby Wambach playing was in June 2015 during the World cup in Canada. The USA faced Colombia in the round of 16, the French TV commentators said she was a great player. I was watching the Women’s World Cup for the first time because the French team had a good opportunity to win. But the French team lost against Germany in Quarter-final and I lost interest as the games were in the middle of the night for me. And I also lost interest in watching Abby Wambach play.

So basically I knew nothing about her until she retired on Dec 16th 2015.

That really annoyed me, because I missed one of the greatest players of the game, of all time, men and women combined, while being at the “right age” to watch her play. I missed Pele and Cruyff because I was too young, but I did not miss Platini and Maradona, I did not miss Zidane, Ronaldo and Messi. I did not miss getting to see any men play actually. Even the average men players — I saw them play lots of games. But I missed getting to see the best woman player! More than that, I have completely missed seeing women’s football! And for an avid sports fan like me, it hurts.

So what happened?

I grew up thinking football was a men’s sport. Because we all, as a collective group, made it a men’s sport. And I, as an individual perpetuated this trend, until now. I have practiced mainly two sports in my life, football and golf. I always thought football was a men’s sport. I always considered golf to be a men’s and women’s sport. And when you practice golf, it is visible. There are plenty of women out there and women have their own tee at every hole. Which means, every golfer, men and women, can experience the exhilarating feeling of standing at the tee of a golf hole, owning this space and preparing to play his or her own hole, designed for them. And for that I am so grateful.

In tennis, the court is the same for men and women, and guess what…the prize money is the same too, in all 4 Grand Slam Tournaments. This is the kind of decision that helps to close the debate over gender equality by attributing equal pay for equal work, and giving the same importance to men’s and women’s athletic competition.

FIFA organized 2 World Cups in the last 2 years, the Women’s World Cup this year in Canada and the Men’s World Cup in 2014 in Brazil. The prize money for the Men was 358 million dollars and for the Women it was 9.6 million dollars. The money allowed by FIFA for preparation costs for each team was 1.5 million for the Men and 200 000 dollars for the Women. Pure gender discrimination.

Out of curiosity, I looked at FIFA statutes to read if there is any mention of a distinction between men and women in the game of football. I found this, which is officially FIFA copyrighted 2015 :

What I understand from FIFA’s own text is this : Discrimination against a group of people on account of gender is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion. Will FIFA ban itself for not respecting its own statutes?

If FIFA makes less money with Women’s football than with Men’s, that is their problem, not ours. But if FIFA says to the face of the World that Women’s football is worth less than Men’s football, then this is our problem and we need to respond. How about FIFA redistributing equally between Men’s and Women’s the money they make with both Men’s and Women’s, so the prize money is the same comparatively to the number of teams involved in the World Cup?

Gender equality must be a conscious choice, because the unconscious choice, apparently, when you consider wage and spending gaps, is that women are worth less than men.

Look at the results for the search using the words “national team” on Google, and you’ll see that it is automatically suggested that the nation is represented best by men.

Look at how France speaks about their Men’s and Women’s national football teams:

copyright Fédération Française de Football 2015

They don’t even mention the Men’s as it is obvious the National Team is the Men’s team. In a world with gender equality, we will have both Equipe de France masculine and Equipe de France féminine.

US Soccer got it right by saying these are the teams representing the USA in Soccer, the MNT (Men’s National Team) and the WNT (Women’s National Team) and so on for the different age-based teams:

US Soccer Copyright 2015

When researching about Abby Wambach and her career, I found two videos which I think define pretty well who she is and what she represents : a 7-minute monologue she did right before the World Cup Final in July 2015 for FOX Soccer and an interview during the Fortune Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit in early December 2015.

She is talking about being angry when, reflecting on her professional career in soccer, she realized that she accepted being paid unequally compared to men during her whole career. I had the same feeling when I realized I accepted the idea of football being a men’s sport. And for me these outputs have the same origin: culture. We lived in a culture where we believed men are worth more than women and football is a men’s sport. We need to contribute to a new culture which creates equality for women and men, in football but also in every domain where there is no reason other than current culture to favor men over women.

Abby Wambach’s next goal is to stop gender inequality. While she is still thinking about a tangible thing to make her project concrete, she currently meets powerful people to continue the conversation, to get things going. Next month, I am going to attend a promising conference for coaches on the Inside Game at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland. I intend to start conversations about gender equality there, because coaches, for our youth and our future, are certainly powerful people and will have a great impact on this cultural change we all need.

Laurent Caudéran