Playing Soccer Like A Girl.

A few weeks ago I had a question I wanted to ask myself: is women’s soccer that much different from men’s soccer? So instead of reading up on the differences, I took the next bus to the soccer stadium, bought myself a hot chocolate, and watched our girls face the Buckeyes.

Now to be perfectly honest, I lowered my expectations before the match, wary that the criticism women’s soccer often faces might have some merit. But also, being a regular spectator of Europe’s top 5 leagues , I couldn’t possibly expect our fellow Wolverines to put up a display anywhere near the standards of Arjen Robben and Cristiano Ronaldo. But this is not exclusive to U of M Women’s soccer, I also lowered my expectations for the Men’s game against Michigan State in East Lansing. These were after all college players, who are, as I have been told many many times, not professional.

These matches were quite a while ago – mid-to-late-October to be a little more precise – and my memory fails me on most of the specific details like names of the goalscorers and in-depth tactical plays, leaving only the main impressions available for me to describe in this post. The Men’s game was fast-paced and powerful, with our captain, Tyler Arnone dominating the midfield and feeding the quick runs from our wingers. It ended in a 3-2 win to the Wolverines. The Women’s game, on the other hand, was a lot slower paced, with the main chunk of the game being patient pressing play. It ended a 2-2 tie, with the dying seconds the most interesting.

In the chapter that we read, Mika argued about the right to “meaningful competition.” We learned about the arguments for and against segregation between genders and people with disabilities in professional sports. I used to think ideas like these would be quite obvious; it is a biological fact, not a bigoted opinion, that the average man is generally physically stronger and faster than the average woman because of a higher muscle mass. I am not here to challenge our professor, but to show the difference in Men’s and Women’s soccer styles and to show, as an extension from that, that ‘meaningful competition’ exists on different styles between the two.

For a sport like soccer, ferocious speed and strength is a huge advantage, that is a given. But it is not the only aspect of the game that is important. Explosive runs and long shots on goal are great to watch and an important aspect of soccer, but they are rarely enough to carry a whole team to greatness. Greece winning the European title in 2004 with only a few household names on that team is an example of this. Also, If we contrast the Portugese side that played in that 2004 final against Greece and the Portugese side that played in the recent 2014 World Cup, we would come to a similar conclusion. Their recent over-reliance on their superstar FIFA Ballon D’or winner, Cristiano Ronaldo, has paved the way for their downfall. Their 2004 side played tactically superior and teamwork-based football instead of heavy dependence on sparkling runs. Teamwork being important in a team sport is not news to anyone. But across genders, the gameplay is so different that even style is affected.

Our Men’s soccer team, as great as they are to watch with their fast runs and key passes, play a different game from our Women’s squad. Though the speed and strength in our Women’s squad was nowhere near our men’s squad, the match was not at all lackluster. The passing was intricate and patient. Though sometimes we looked like we wanted to play a fast-paced game, bombing down the flanks, our goals didn’t come from those runs, but from a set-piece (which requires plenty of training and teamwork to get right) and from another goal that materialized after some long, hard pressing play.

Women play differently from men. To watch it and to appreciate it requires accepting this fact.

Remember how I said I had to lower my expectations when watching Women’s soccer at the collegiate level? Well one aspect I did not need to do that is in terms of spirit and integrity. One difference I noticed when watching the woman’s game was that very few people dived. I wouldn’t dare say the same thing for the names I mentioned earlier, especially Arjen Robben, who even inspired this post in the Daily Mail for his diving antics. Men’s professional soccer is so terribly riddled with fake dives that it has even inspired this Key & Peele sketch:

Women don’t dive, or at least they dive a whole lot less. This is interesting because you’d probably expect women, who are constantly and unfortunately branded as weak, to dive and pretend to get injured a whole lot more. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“After the first women’s World Cup in 1991, referees who were accustomed to the men’s game reported being more fatigued after reffing women’s games,”

Even though the usual fast runs and killer instincts are appreciated by both Men’s and Women’s soccer, an example in the latter would be players like Alex Morgan, the appreciated skill sets of the average player may differ between them.The smaller relative size of women compared to men allows more space on the pitch for players to exploit. The lower lung capacity of women force the game to slow down, making tactical settings far more important in the woman’s game. For the spectator, women’s soccer is a slower, “more pure” sport. For the player, their “meaningful participation” is made different from their male counterparts’. It is filled with more passion than many other sports and as much as I’d hate to admit it, the Buckeyes never looked like giving up, even after conceding a goal with a mere 30 seconds left on the clock.

I’d like to end this post with this tweet, and hopefully give everyone some food for thought, as it has given me.