In fairness to Mr. Cunha (and I’m gritting my teeth trying to be fair to him), women’s soccer has gotten sexier since the 1990s: jerseys are more fitted, shorts are shorter, players wear make-up and are featured in ads and promos with their hair down and jewelry on, and they’ve posed semi-nude in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit and ESPN’s Bodies issues.
But to attribute the growing popularity of women’s soccer over the last 15 years to sexualizing the players, thereby pretending men’s soccer hasn’t followed the same trends, reeks of good old-fashioned sexism in a not-so-good old-fashioned way. Men’s and women’s uniforms have both gotten progressively more fitted in the past decade. And female players certainly aren’t the only ones getting more “beautiful” or boasting better hairstyles. I would love to know Cunha’s opinion of Neymar’s hair, or Christian Ronaldo’s eyebrows.
The media has noticed the beauty in the beautiful game. Vanity Fair featured stars of the men’s 2010 World Cup where Ronaldo, Didier Drogba, Landon Donovan, and Michael Ballack (among others) all posed, muscles bulging, in underwear featuring their home nations’ flags. Buzzfeed posts lists (of course) of the hottest players on the United States Men’s National Team and lists of the hottest players on Brazi’s World Cup team, and the blog Jezebel.com coined thighlights to feature the sexy man thighs of the World Cup.
But the real crime here isn’t Cunha thinking that only the female game is benefiting from sexing up its players, it’s that he completely disregards the legitimate differences, strengths, and entertainment value of women’s soccer when compared to men’s. By chalking the bump in popularity of women’s soccer to the ladies showing more skin and wearing mascara, Cunha has reduced these world class athletes to aesthetic objects. Women’s soccer highlights aspects of the game that many fans actually find equally (or maybe even more) enjoyable to watch than men’s games: a technical game that doesn’t rely on brute physicality, and a game pace that isn’t bogged down by fouls and flopping and feigning injury. Maybe those aspects could be why women’s soccer is making huge strides in popularity, with each US Women’s National Team game setting viewership records.
So why does Cuhna’s mentality persist? In a recent Sports Illustrated feature, Abby Wambach recalls FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, mistaking her wife, Sarah Huffman, for Brazilian star, Marta. Similarly, Alex Morgan told Time magazine about Blatter failing to recognize her at the FIFA World Player of the year event. Let me remind you, these are some of the most famous female soccer players in the world. Surely there is room enough for men’s and women’s soccer to coexist and fans enough to support them both. Whether we can muster enough professional respect for these women is another question entirely.
Kate Goldwater is a soccer superfan and the owner of AuH20, a thrift and vintage bouquet in New York City,