Lianne and I have been in Spain for three weeks now but we have observed more than many do in months. If you come to a foreign country as the only English speaking players you are exposing yourself to serious culture shock. Although you may want to test the waters with your toe, you are thrown in the deep end and forced to tread. It is sink or swim, baby, and there is no other way around it.
Last blog, I was sensitive not to compare the gender differences in America and Spain because I did not feel like I had amassed enough information and/or experience to weigh in on the issue. Three games, 20 practices, and hundreds of interactions later, I am ready to analyze, speculate, and share my findings.
Being a member of the WPS for three years and a female American athlete for my entire life, I feel I have often taken Title IX for granted. I, and all of those who came after me, never experienced the real struggles women faced to be recognized as legitimate sports figures. The generations before me with the likes of Mia Hamm, Billy Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, really blazed the trail in gender equality. I was one of the lucky ones who reaped the benefits of all their suffrage (i.e “Battle of the Sexes”).
I have admitted many times before that the United States is not a country that boasts a strong soccer culture, but I could never admit that my sport-loving nature was not encouraged from a very young age. That must explain why America is able to produce some of the world’s greatest athletes. It is nurtured, promoted, and now, expected. We can run fast, jump high, and move mountains with our strength.
As someone who considers herself a woman of the world, I have come to find this attitude to be quite unique. Further proof is established during my time here in Spain. The women are always the last on the field. We practice from 9:30 – 11:00 at night and we chased off by an electricity bill that forces the lights to go pitch black at 11:05pm. (Lianne tells me the same is true in England – a European thing?)
Lianne and I are the only members of the team lucky enough not to have to go to school, put in eight hours on the job, or practice their “real” trade during the day. These girls are like machines. They wake up early to, for instance, study medicine, as two girls on the team do. I can only imagine how difficult it is to study medicine let alone study medicine and play soccer at a professional level all at the same time.
If you are an avid reader of this blog, then you know my stance on quality over quantity. I strongly believe focus is the key to greatness. I quote Malcolm Gladwell when I say that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert at anything. It is not without this extreme dedication that one is at his or her best. So why do these girls spend so many hours off the soccer field? Is there not a desire for soccer expertise?
Answer: They have to. There are only 24 hours in a day. The concept of opportunity cost cannot be ignored. The more hours these girls spend juggling a soccer ball, the fewer hours they have to dedicate to an occupation that really has a “future” (where they can make money and a name for themselves). I can honestly say from having played in the WPS for three years, the pay is not great, but one is able to live off of it. Here, the money is even scarcer, and since it is a male-oriented soccer culture; the women aren’t even a priority in their own club.
In the WPS, the affiliation with the MLS is weak at best and most times, non-existent, making the women’s team the sole entity, and therefore, priority number one. I have come to find that one’s perception is ones reality so if you perceive to be of importance, you WILL BE of importance.
It is imperative to note that all of the Espanyol players take their soccer very seriously; however, it is difficult to compete with an invisible foe. That foe being the expectation that women were meant to watch sports, not play them. It is a common occurrence to see women of all ages at soccer events (stress put on men’s soccer games). It is a social get-together and do not sell these women short, they know much about the game and their passion runs deep. There isn’t, however, a strong emphasis on participation.
With all this in mind, it should be of no surprise why women in Spain cannot play all day and sleep all night. They must just try to survive, let alone thrive and women’s sport is not yet an avenue to accomplish either of these things.
I would like to believe the cultural aspect described above is changing, albeit slowly. Nothing happens over night and as in the United States, it gets more common by the day to see women step outside the gender stereotyped box. Take for example, Veronica Boquete, one of the best female players Spain has ever produced. Vero is playing professionally all over the world and only playing professionally. She makes a good living. At the moment, however, she is the exception, not the rule. But, like Billy Jean King, there always has to be the first to set the example for the others. To set the bar so high that it gives others the opportunity, the vision, and the hope to someday reach it.
I do not have my PHD in gender studies but after having played soccer in Japan, Sweden, Spain, Bulgaria, Norway, Mexico, Brazil, and the list goes on, I say with genuine honesty and an unbiased viewpoint that Title IX has completely transformed the way women athletes are perceived in the United States. No, we do not yet garner the attention and the millions of dollars the men do, and we admittedly have a ways to go to secure total financial equality, but we are still leaps and bounds ahead of the game.
The more I witness and the more I experience overseas, the more my heart beats for the Stars and Stripes. As females in America, athlete or non-athlete, we are very lucky. We have overcome barriers that still stand in front of many internationally. Thank you to all the strong women who came before me and fought for the rights I exercise today. I would be nothing without you.