The mistake of conflating more Women’s World Cup spots with actual development

This year’s edition of the Women’s World Cup saw FIFA expand the tournament field from 16 to 24 teams. Yesterday, on Day 2 of the tournament, favorites Germany throttled World Cup neophyte Ivory Coast, 10-0, in public, in front of an overwhelming number of eyeballs, globally.

For many, the expanded field is to blame for the lopsided victory over the Ivorians. In a women’s field where the the drop off in talent from the top-ranked teams to the 16th best team in the world is staggering, the notion of expanding the tournament to 24 teams or even 32, like the men’s tournament, seems idiotic. Moreover, it’s seen as embarrassing to teams like Ivory Coast that have to suffer the indignity of conceding 10 goals in 90 minutes in front of friends, family and lots of people they’ve never met.

Obviously, there are arguments on both sides of the question. The pro-expansion argument goes a little something like this: Expanding the Women’s World Cup field is the way to grow the game. More women playing means more women around the world watching, which means more investment, globally, in the women’s game. Yay!

Another pro-expansion argument is that, on the men’s side, in 1982, there were similar beatings when the World Cup was expanded from 16 to 24 teams. Thus, a little patience, please. The quality will come with time.

A combination of those two arguments would look something like this:

The anti-expansion argument isn’t categorically opposed to expansion. Rather, it focuses on bottom-up development as the key to expanding the women’s game:

This is the argument that holds the most weight.

Most of the pro-expansion arguments being tossed about for the Women’s World Cup — gotta start somewhere, or it worked in the men’s game — are flawed. These arguments, in essence, are essentially mirror arguments for trickle-down economics, popularized by Republicans in the 1980s. The theory goes like this: Provide incentives at the top, for example, via tax breaks to the rich, and the benefits will trickle down to the poors. It’s a top-down development approach, one that may sound reasonable in the abstract, but it leaves out a vital variable: incentive.

Trickle-down economics is predicated on the fact that financial benefits will either automatically flow downhill or that the wealthy will consciously look out for more people when given more. But the theory doesn’t account for greed, or bastards. When you give some people with money more money, they just figure out ways to keep it; they conjure up ways to spread the wealth around to friends while tossing bones to the needy as a gesture rather than being driven by change.

A similar principle applies to women’s soccer. The idea being advanced by pro-expansion advocates is that creating opportunity at the top, via more World Cup slots, will grow the game. Examples are given about how beatings in the men’s game, when the tournament was expanded, were overcome, and about how a team like Japan was initially slaughtered and rose to lift the World Cup trophy.

Here’s what’s being left out: Men’s teams, after the expansion of the World Cup, likely grew because governments around the world are packed with fans of the men’s game. Soccer vanity on the men’s side, and the eagerness to invest in the men’s game, might not automatically flow when it comes to certain nations investing in the women’s game. Getting embarrassed in front of an international crowd may weaken the will of some people to grow the game in their countries.

The Japan example: At the inaugural Women’s World Cup, in 1991, Japan was thrashed 8-0 by Sweden, and 3-0 by the United States. They were not remotely impressive. Yet here they are, in 2015, defending their 2011 title. So any team can do it, right?

Well, not so much.

Japan didn’t turn things around because it was allowed to participate in a World Cup. It happened because there was a dedicated effort by Japanese administrators, over time, backed by the Japanese government, to invest in the women’s game. The vast majority of the 2011 Japanese team that lifted the World Cup in Germany played for Japanese club teams. The same is true in 2015. That has little to do with the availability of World Cup spots. It has everything to do with attention at the bottom.

Similarly, a team like the Netherlands isn’t skewing toward excellence on the basis of available World Cup slots. Its dynamic and technical play is a function of investment and the vast amount of mouth-watering soccer resources in the already soccer-mad nation.

Ultimately, conflating more World Cup access to actual development of the women’s game is dangerous, because making more slots available doesn’t automatically mean anything. There’s more work to be done; much more work that would need to be done than if the men’s tournament was further expanded. Because if there’s one thing we do know, it’s that, unfortunately, governments do things for men that they’re often more reluctant to do for women.

It’s great that Japan and the Netherlands have made concerted efforts to invest in the women’s game. But we shouldn’t automatically assume that the rest of the world is going to be so willing to follow suit, just because a couple of 10-0 thrashing slots are made available.

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