Sometimes you can hear it. Sometimes you can smell it. This one, you can feel. The tide is turning.
What started as a slow, steady howl has grown into a guttural growl. It was the year of the awoken dragon, and women are breathing fire. On a global scale, national women's soccer teams and players came together to say enough. To say, we deserve better. To say, we too deserve to be supported, we too deserve to be paid more, we too deserve better facilities, we too deserve respect.
Call it courageous or call it long overdue, but the movement is on. Women's soccer is bringing in record numbers in attendance: for the Africa Cup of Nations, for Mexico's women's pro league, for the FA Cup final, for the European Championship this past summer. Record numbers are watching women's soccer on TV as well. The women's game is growing, continent by continent. And the players have found their voice.
And none too soon. I have been waiting, begging, for this tipping point since the late 1990s, when our U.S. women's national team battled the U.S. Soccer Federation for more support for the women's and girls' programs. We succeeded by standing up together as a team and demanding change. I then thought the success of the 1999 Women's World Cup in the United States would be the much-needed catalyst for change domestically and, in particular, globally. I was wrong. I underestimated the inertia of evolution.
As female athletes all over the world have discovered the hard way, changing cultures and mindsets takes action. Yes, one must act -- and act courageously. Most sports federations, corporations and governments don't change voluntarily. Change is brought by the disenfranchised demanding better. Change is brought by groups coming together and saying, "Unless we do something, the next generation will continue to suffer." I couldn't be more thrilled about women soccer players all over the globe deciding they would no longer be voiceless.
This year, players in Nigeria and Ghana -- after finishing first and third, respectively, in the 2016 Africa Cup of Nations -- held sit-ins and peaceful protests over unpaid bonuses and allowances. The Argentinian women's team members revealed that they're paid 150 pesos -- or about $8.50 -- per training session, with most players holding jobs outside of the game and struggling to meet the demands of the national squad.
In Ireland, members of the national team were simply looking to remedy the "humiliating" conditions they experience. Players said that, on their way to matches, they have to change into their Ireland-issued sweatsuits in airport public restrooms because they share their gear with youth teams, according to Reuters. "It doesn't cost much to give the squad a tracksuit to travel," captain Emma Byrne said at a news conference. "I'm actually a little bit embarrassed talking about it." Among their other requests, they asked for a match fee of 300 euros -- about $350 -- gym memberships and to stay in hotels that have working Wi-Fi.
Often, negotiations don't happen without a fight. Denmark sat out a World Cup qualifier, and Argentinian players went on strike, and the Irish and Swedish national teams threatened to sit out matches. "We do not negotiate to get rich. It is about ensuring that we can live up to our own and DBU's [Denmark's Football Federation] expectations," Danish player Sanne Troelsgaard said.
In September, 32-year-old Brazilian star Cristiane posted an emotional video announcing her retirement. The all-time leading goal scorer in women's soccer in the Olympics said she could no longer tolerate playing for the national federation, citing lack of pay and disagreement with the decision to fire the team's first female head coach.
"I think this is the hardest decision I've ever taken in my life professionally," she said. "But I don't see any other solutions because of everything that has happened. And because of the things I don't have the strength to deal with anymore ... I dealt with it for 17 years, but I can't anymore. It is so hard to retire because this was my dream ... to win a World Cup ... an Olympic gold medal. This is everything I always wanted."
Four other players chose to quit the national team in solidarity, and retired team members posted an open letter urging for reform.
Cristiane found tepid support. Five-time world player of the year Marta said that though she was saddened by Cristiane's decision, she would try to enact change from the inside and continue to play for Brazil. The Brazilian Federation formed a committee to address their concerns, but in typical Brazilian football-ing fashion, there seems to be a lot of bluster and no substance to their support. It remains to be seen if this committee can -- and more importantly if the Brazilian Federation is willing to -- enact meaningful change. It's worth mentioning that Marco Aurelio Cunha, the women's soccer coordinator in Brazil, has attributed growth in the women's game to make-up and short shorts.
Abby Erceg of New Zealand also said she's leaving international play because of "unfortunate and unfavorable circumstances" in the national federation. "Without being able to justify my involvement any longer, I will be stepping back in the hopes to create change for the current and future generations of [New Zealand] footballers," she wrote in an Instagram post.
In some countries, the players' fight paid off. National teams in Holland, the United States, Denmark, Sweden, Scotland and Norway signed new deals with their national governing bodies. Norway became the first national federation to devise a pay deal that's equal on the men's and women's sides.
That deal, however, comes with an asterisk: Although the men and the women each receive 25 percent of the bonuses paid out by FIFA and UEFA, women end up earning less. Take, for example, the last round of FIFA bonuses for the men's and women's World Cups. If the Norwegian men had advanced from their group and then lost in the Round of 16 in 2014, FIFA would've paid the national federation $9 million, of which the men's team would receive $2.25 million. If the Norwegian women had won the 2015 World Cup -- yes, if they had WON the World Cup -- the Norwegian Federation would have received $2 million from FIFA. By this contract, the women's team would have been paid out the same 25 percent, which equals $500,000.
I've argued that FIFA and the federations don't factor in systemic discrimination, and two wrongs don't make a right. Rampant discrimination still exists in the women's game, as is obvious from these shared stories. But the tipping point is here. And man (pun intended), is it needed.
Look no further than this report published Dec. 15 by FIFPro World Players' Union, which represents 60,000 players globally. The group interviewed 3,500 female players who play at an elite level, either for their national team or in the first division of a national championship. According to the report, about half of respondents said they aren't being paid by their clubs at all, and more than 60 percent of paid players take home less than $600 a month. Ninety percent (yes, you read that right) of professional female players are considering ending their soccer careers early.
May these courageous women and their stories inspire more teams and more players to rise up. May these federations who fail to support their women's teams be exposed. And all of us in the game, in the media, on the business side -- men and women -- must amplify these efforts. Because sadly, unless players act, nothing changes.
As Cristiane said in tears to close her video, "Girls, be strong. United. Fight for the things that are not going to change your lives now but will change the lives of the girls in the future. The other national teams are making a change because they are fighting united."
To all federation presidents, listen to the girls and women. Ask yourself the question: Why should a girl not be afforded the same opportunity to chase her dream?
Your responsibility as a governing body of the sport is to grow the game for all. Stop making the players put their careers and dreams on hold, and instead fulfill your mission. In other words, do your damn job. Because the fire is coming.
This has just begun.