A history of the pioneer athletes who built women’s soccer
Photo by Stark Sands
In her new book Soccerwomen: The Icons, Rebels, Stars and Trailblazers Who Transformed the Beautiful Game, journalist Gemma Clarke weaves together a history of women’s soccer through the stories of the players who battled long odds to play the game they loved. Clarke recently spoke with Radio Free Soccer about why she felt these stories needed to be told.
What inspired you to write Soccerwomen?
It’s a book I really wanted to read. I am a fan of Simon Kuper, who has written quite extensively about the men’s game, and he had written a book called Football Men, or Soccer Men here in the U.S. And I wondered why there was no equivalent to that for the women’s game. I also wanted to learn more. As a journalist, I knew who many of the players were, but there were so many players that I didn’t know about. So the best way for me to learn a lot was to write. I pitched the idea to cover the history of the women’s game and tell these stories through the stories of players themselves, and I was lucky enough to be given that opportunity.
As a writer, the joy of doing a book like this is the discovery process and researching and finding all of these stories. What were some of the pivotal stories that you uncovered along the way?
I think I found something in just about everyone, even in the players that I though I knew. But I really tried to look outside of the conventional players that we know as well. For me, it was finding out about players like Hajra Khan, who is from Pakistan. Trying to get a feel for what was happening around the world. It became so much more than a book about a game. The sport was really a vehicle for social progress, protest, and women’s rights around the world and how you see that reflected in the game globally. And then I’m finding things out about players like Kristine Lilly and what her experiences were like with the U.S. national team. They were staying in hotels where there were no bathrooms, having to rinse off in the pool after training. Those are the stories that make everyone human and carry the bigger stories.
Having covered the game both here in the U.S. and abroad, how does the coverage vary here in the States versus the rest of the world.
I moved here 10 years ago, and I think it’s really interesting how much more prevalent the women’s game is here in the U.S. then it is in other places. Growing up in England, I loved playing, but there were no other girls playing. Because my mom played, I grew up thinking that I had a chance of playing in a league but there wasn’t one. So I played with boys, and eventually, I kind of fell off and didn’t pursue it. So what’s been very interesting to find out is that the culture here is very different. The women’s team has such a higher profile than the men’s team, which is also why it’s kind of crazy that they don’t get paid as well (laughs). But the men’s game is very prevalent elsewhere. I wrote a lot about the men’s game. When I moved here, I had all of this knowledge about the men’s game, but it was completely redundant. You could travel around the world and if you don’t speak the same language but you would be able to like communicate through soccer, and I didn’t have that here. Since then, Rebecca Lowe (of NBC Sports) came over, and you do see the coverage, and it has been fantastic. And depending on where you live now, it’s such a vital part of the culture.
You delve further into the history of the women’s game, past the World Cup, going back to the 19th Century. How difficult was it to research that? Was the game covered well back then?
It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be, because there are so many incredible academics working in this sphere. They’ve published a lot of papers and done a lot of research on the early pioneers of the game. It is amazing to see the struggles for social justice and women’s rights. From the late 19th century, the first team that came together in the U.K., British Ladies Football Club, came together really as a means of showing that women could perform sport and be out in the public sphere and they didn’t need to wear this restricting Victorian dress. They showed that they could do that to such a degree that there was a backlash, which has been the pattern throughout history. Women show they can do the same things that men can do, but they show it to such a degree that a backlash follows. So it’s progress and then a step backwards. Progress, then a step backwards. You’ll see these personal stories of incredible courage and bravery to really risk life and limb to play the game they love and to pursue something at great personal cost. It’s still the case today for many of the women around the world.
You didn’t take the easy way out with his book in a sense that it’s not a chronological narrative. There are quite a lot of players featured in this. How many interviews did you do to complete this?
Probably about 20 to 25. I actually had a new baby at the time, so it wasn’t too hard to be up at three or four in the morning to speak to someone in Pakistan (laughs). I’m very lucky that so many players gave up their time. It’s not easy to ask somebody to do that, especially when you know that so much of their time has been given up for free. They haven’t really been adequately compensated for their profession, let alone all of the extracurricular stuff that they do.
You spoke to some amazing people for this book. Which of those interviews were you most excited or proud to get?
I thought about this a lot, and it’s so hard to narrow down. I felt so lucky to be able to have these long, and really life changing conversations, talking from a place of loving the same game, but also finding out about how the game has changed our lives and how they changed history. I really loved talking to Abby Wambach. She gets very well paid now to speak to people (laughs). Lisa Cole had just an incredible story to tell about being coach of the Papua New Guinea under-20 team. It’s one of my favorite stories in the book, about a part of the world that few people know about, and it’s just a really beautiful story of sport and activism and how soccer can reflect that country at that particular time.
Are you optimistic about where the women’s game is now?
I would say I’m cautiously optimistic. The upcoming World Cup feels like a watershed moment for the sport. There’s more money than ever. There’s more attention than ever. There’s more coverage. The pace of progress is slow. I think given what’s happening in the world politically, it would be naive to assume that progress continues and that there aren’t setbacks. Certainly, women’s soccer has experienced its fair share of setbacks, and probably will experience more in the future. I wonder if following the model of the men’s game is necessarily the best path. I don’t think there is another model to follow right now. I do feel there are so many flaws within the men’s game—lack of competition and financial irregularities, if you will. So I would like to see the women’s team on the par, if not surpassing it with a new model for soccer around the world. But then again, it’s always slow going.
Do you get the sense that the U.S. women feel even more pressure to win because the success of the NWSL is so often tied, fairly or unfairly, to the success of the U.S. women’s national team?
I get the sense that they are very focused on the games. So if they carry that with them, it doesn’t show. They always appear extremely professional and extremely focused. As a woman, and certainly as a female athlete, there is a constant pressure to prove yourself. The weight of the game rests squarely on your shoulders. That’s something that really came through in the book is just how much extra work these soccer players have to do. A lot of it they did it by choice, because they want to grow the game. But you look at the WUSA, when the original 99ers—the women who won the World Cup and got it started—took a pay cut to make sure the game would survive, even though it didn’t. It’s a constant effort to keep the game alive and increase the popularity of the sport.
What would you like people to know most about the book?
It’s accessible, even if you don’t know the history of the game that well. I really wanted to tell the players’ stories and check in on these different people to see how they live their lives. If you come away with anything from the book, it is the lesson that if you choose to do something and you love to do something, there may be people out there telling you that it’s not worth it, telling you that you can’t or that you’re not good enough. These athletes have proved time and time again that you should never listen to those people.
Soccerwomen: The Icons, Rebels, Stars and Trailblazers Who Transformed the Beautiful Game (Bold Type Books) is available at Amazon.com.