What Women's Sports Can Learn From The Colombian Soccer Team
EDMONTON -- Lady Andrade is brilliant, whether intentionally or not.
The Colombian striker is now eliminated from the Women's World Cup, after the U.S. women did exactly what everyone expected and defeated Colombia 2-0 in the knockout round at Commonwealth Stadium.
Even though Lady Andrade couldn't follow through on her prematch promise -- "We're going to beat them since they talk so much" -- she showed the crafty gamesmanship of a natural-born promoter, as well as a willingness to play a role rarely embraced by female athletes: the villain (although Colombia fans likely saw her as the hero in this little drama.)
The 24-year-old got people talking about Las Cafeteras -- and about this match -- in a way distinctly different than how they might have otherwise. Colombia presented itself as the feisty underdog, throwing jabs (sometimes literally), stepping boldly onto the main stage and demanding your attention. Yes, the World Cup is now over for Andrade & Co., but there's a lesson for women's sports in how Colombia handled -- and manipulated -- the spotlight during the lead-up to this match.
The U.S. will play China on Friday in the quarterfinals. Not many people will have trouble understanding the rivalry between the U.S. and China. In fact, there are numerous opponents in this World Cup who come with paint-by-numbers storylines. An incomplete list: Canada (northern neighbors!), Germany (World War II!), England (they once ruled us!). At this World Cup, even if you know nothing about women's soccer -- the U.S. beat China at the 1999 World Cup, U.S. forward Sydney Leroux is from Canada, etc. -- you can often still connect with the rivalry.
But if you had stopped people on the street over the weekend, how many could have given you an accurate snapshot of U.S.-Colombia, specific to women's soccer or geopolitically? The answer most likely is not many.
That's not unlike most women's sports events, which is why U.S.-Colombia makes a great case study for how to create interest for a women's game. People don't learn the storylines about women's sports simply by existing in our culture; they usually have to seek out the knowledge. Or have an athlete such as Lady Andrade willing to take a risk and be bold.
Before Colombia grabbed the microphone, this match had many of the hallmarks of a typical women's sporting event: one team heavily favored (think: UConn women's basketball), an underdog we don't know very well, and the possibility that everyone would say and do the "right" thing, and there'd be nothing to really sink your teeth into and talk about.
Then here comes Andrade, with absolutely nothing to lose, and she offers an example of precisely what is needed in women's sports. It doesn't even matter that Colombia didn't win or that the U.S. team never actually disrespected Colombia (at least, not that we know of). Think of how many male athletes have boldly predicted championships -- and then not delivered. Think of all the rivalries you can name in men's sports, some organic, some contrived, and regardless, when you turn on the TV, you have a distinct, rooting interest.
The truth is, villains are like the unicorns of women's sports. Female athletes usually try to say all the right things, seemingly convinced that keeping their heads down and working hard is the right long-term strategy. Rocking the boat is dangerous.
The thinking appears to be something: If we rock the boat, what if, instead of getting people's attention, the boat capsizes?
Consider how infrequently bad blood (cue Taylor Swift) or even a blatant clash of styles exists between two women's teams.
Not often. At least, not that reaches the casual fan.
During this World Cup, Colombia made the U.S. its rival -- at least on paper and in the papers. Andrade jump-started the conversation, then passed the baton to 21-year-old teammate Yoreli Rincon, who said Sunday of the U.S. team: "They're clearly taller and more athletic, but they do not have the heart that we Colombians have."
The star midfielder then discussed the tactical differences between the two teams: Colombia plays a skilled game of possession, almost like street ball; the Americans play a more direct style, built on a foundation of fitness and athleticism.
Andrade had touched on something similar: "They play very physically, taking a lot of shots, kicking out at you all the time. Colombia's game is nice to watch. We play with touch, movement. We look for spaces. We try to trick you, to use our skill to deceive you. I think they will have a hard time dealing with this."
That was a not-so subtle dig at the Americans.
And guess what? That's cool too.
International women's soccer is in an interesting space. There is media attention, and there are thousands of fans packing into stadiums. All signs point to legitimacy. But perhaps the final mile marker will be when everyday fans (not just Colombians) feel comfortable offering criticism, second-guessing the coach and the choices, and putting the play itself under a microscope.
Imagine being knowledgeable enough about women's sports and knowing enough about a women's team to think you know better than the coach or a player in the game's closing minutes. Imagine knowing who else could have been the coach and which players the team might have signed.
Then imagine being confident enough to actually admit you're into women's sports.
These are the conversations that fuel men's sports.
Over the past few days, the Americans never really responded to Colombia, except to say that whatever disrespect Lady Andrade was referring to didn't come from their camp.
Then, on Sunday, U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe said this: "In a way, I get it. They are an up-and-coming team and feel like they haven't gotten the respect they think they deserve and they're striving for."
Stop and think about that quote for a second.
Because, you know, those words could actually apply to almost every women's team on the planet.