As the Women’s World Cup is about to commence, ABC’s Wide World of Sports aptly characterized the spectacle of sport as “the human drama of athletic competition”; but nowadays it is the unfortunate politicization of sport that should command our attention. Winning at international sport has always bolstered national pride. But some nations have misappropriated national pride for propagandist agendas. Authoritarian regimes, in particular, have used sport to promote ugly images of patriarchal dominance and supremacist ideology. In stark contrast, the field of national teams in France this summer should serve as a testament to the enlightened beliefs and healthy societal advancement enabled by Western liberal democracies.
Of the 24 women’s national teams in France for the World Cup, fully 21 hail from countries whose political system resembles some form of democracy. Liberal democracies predominate, with arguably 19 teams represented from countries recognized globally for their advanced politics and equal treatment of women. The extent to which liberal democracies appear in the tournament brackets, whether from developed nations of the West or developing nations from other regions, should be observed and provide for critical inspection as to why that is the case.
In How Football Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, American author Franklin Foer attempts to make a case for how the culture of soccer globally helps to explain globalization of world economic conditions. While both acclaimed and criticized, Franklin Foer should not have propped up soccer as a proxy for understanding the global order. That is too simplistic. Rather, a more supportable position, as evidenced by this World Cup, would be that the successes of women’s soccer teams is a reflection of the societal advances in the qualifying nation.
Authoritarian regimes simply are not represented, except for China. This is somewhat surprising since dictators and authoritarians from throughout history have used sport to promote their particular brand of supremacy. Hitler’s Berlin Olympics, East German Olympic swimmers, Soviet athletes across all sports, and Chinese gymnasts – all serve as examples of nationalist agendas, usually coupled with drug doping, to use sport as a vehicle for propaganda. And yet, in an era of the advancement of women’s rights, the absence of countries from authoritarian regimes in this World Cup is striking!
Yet, perhaps the explanation is simple logic: patriarchal dominance and supremacist ideology can find no alliance with the sort of enlightened thinking that promotes the advancement of women’s interests. Interestingly, some of the most oppressive laws against women exist in the Muslim nations of the Middle East, and not one team from that region is in the current field in France. Moreover, just look at strongmen around the world compared to the brackets of teams in France and certain conclusions are obvious:
Europe – hotbed of soccer – is represented by 9 teams. Missing are:
- Turkey: led by nationalist Recep Tayyip Erdogan
- Hungary: led by authoritarian Viktor Orbán
- Perhaps the most glaring absence is Russia. Just a year away from hosting 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia, and notwithstanding a demonstrated expertise in advanced doping schemes, the Russian Women’s National Team did not qualify. Indeed, in preparatory 2018 Algarve Cup, the Russian side crashed out of its first-round bracket, not winning a match.
Just a month removed from having hear it declared “the best World Cup ever” by FIFA President Gianni Infantino on May 23, 2019, perhaps Vladimir Putin should take stock of the underlying political and legislative support for women’s soccer that exists in liberal democracies throughout the world. And indeed, perhaps women’s international soccer success could be a proxy for assessing a country’s openness and equality!
The Women’s World Cup in France is also remarkable for which liberal democracies are represented. Generally, the world’s most open societies are heavily represented in France. According to the 2018 Global Gender Gap Report from the World Economic Forum (WEF), the Nordic nations scored best in equality – notably Norway (ranked 2d in equality) and Sweden (ranked 3d) both made the tournament. Using four thematic dimensions — Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival, and Political Empowerment — the report evaluates the conditions that support equality. In general, western democracies scored high. Not surprisingly, a factor like “Political Empowerment” is revealed in the United States through a law – Title IX – that has fostered the advancement of US women’s soccer stars for decades.
The Anglo-Saxon countries (also known as the Five Eyes) – United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand – are all represented in France. Indeed, within the United Kingdom, both England and Scotland are represented in France. A large amount of literature and global leadership about liberal democracy, openness and free markets emerged from these countries; and if practice follows theory, it should come as no surprise that these countries are all represented at the Women’s World Cup.
The qualifying nations, by competitive bracket are:
- Bracket A: France, Norway, South Korea, Nigeria
- Bracket B: Germany, Spain, China, South Africa
- Bracket C: Italy, Brazil, Australia, Jamaica
- Bracket D: England, Scotland, Argentina, Japan
- Bracket E: Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Cameroon
- Bracket F: Sweden, United States, Chile, Thailand
Favored to win: USA, followed by France, Germany and England. All of these countries are regarded globally as advanced liberal democracies and free market economies with government policies and a societal culture that advance women’s rights.
Western leadership in gender equality is being showcased in France as much as the competition itself. The talent on the field, indeed having a women’s competition at all, would not even be possible if the repressive and patriarchal ideologies of modern nationalism were permitted to change the global order.
All hail “The Beautiful Game” – on display for the next month in France!