Skip to Content

Opinion: Women’s World Cup is teaching a new generation this valuable lesson


Opinion by Aimee Phan

(CNN) — As a Vietnamese American kid growing up in the United States, I did not see many soccer players who looked like me. I also never played. My Vietnamese refugee parents expected my brother and me to focus on school instead of playing sports, which they considered a distraction, a luxury our family could not afford. This is not an uncommon thought among new immigrants, especially as soccer in this country is still largely considered an elite youth sport that favors mostly White affluent kids in the suburbs, those who have the resources to succeed.

Yet, my father loved watching sports events on television, especially the World Cup and the Olympics, and he would marvel at the skills and accomplishments of elite athletes. But finding an Asian or Asian American athlete competing at the international level was rare, so when they did appear, I felt nervous. I knew that, whether they liked it or not, these athletes representing their countries carried more than the hopes of their people; they also embodied their anxieties. With so few opportunities available for mainstream success, we realized they’d be judged not only for their individual performance, but also (and quite unfairly) for their country’s potential in the sport.

I experience these “rep sweats” to this day. As more Asian athletes rise to international levels, they carry the power to break down barriers, motivate their countries’ sports federations to provide more resources and encourage generations of future players.

These concerns are much on my mind as the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup is wrapping up the group stage, with an exciting mix of both predictable favorites and unexpected underdogs advancing to the knockout rounds. Despite the time difference of matches played in Australia and New Zealand, our family has been following the tournament closely, tracking our favorite superstars — such as the US’s Megan Rapinoe and Brazil’s Marta — playing in their last World Cups, and watching other international players like Japan’s Hinata Miyazawa, Jamaica’s Khadija “Bunny” Shaw and Colombia’s Linda Caicedo take the pitch by storm.

During the last FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2019, the Americans pummeled Thailand 13-0, a game that currently holds the record for the most lopsided World Cup match, men or women, in history. My initial joy had soured into disgust as the American players relentlessly celebrated over an exhausted and painfully overmatched team. Although I understood the teams’ experiences and resources were vastly different, it was difficult to witness such a beating.

Predictably, given the surprising outcomes on the field this time around (including early exits from Olympic champion Canada and top-ranked Germany), my reactions have been all over the map. But it’s also been the so-called “debutante” teams that have my loyalties switching every match, especially while watching players from Asian nations triumph and falter on the international stage. This year marked the first time Vietnam has ever qualified, one of eight first-time nations, including Morocco, the first North African or Arab nation to qualify for the competition — and now, along with Nigeria and South Africa — one of three African nations to make it out of the group stage, the first time that’s happened in this tournament.

It’s been wonderful to watch how my own children are experiencing this tournament. It’s opening their eyes to how this game can shape — and be shaped by — global concerns. My husband has been a fan of the Premier League’s Tottenham Hotspur for years and passed down this devotion to our children. Their favorite Spurs player is Korean international superstar Son Heung-Min, idolized by my son since he started watching the Premier League with his dad on weekend mornings as a toddler. I admit I took no notice of this team (whose nickname is the Lilywhites), until the immensely popular Asian player joined the club in 2015.

But there is no Asian female soccer player who has risen to Son’s level of international popularity. At least, not yet. Because just as in virtually every other profession, female soccer players still strive for parity in support and compensation to match their male counterparts — and the Women’s World Cup has once again exposed this inequity. Professional men’s soccer leagues still receive the lion’s share of support and exposure. Only a handful of female soccer superstars are household names, such as the US’s Alex Morgan, Australia’s Sam Kerr, and Brazil’s Marta, one of the few notable female footballers of color, and widely considered the greatest female footballer ever. The Women’s World Cup was founded only 32 years ago in 1991, and nations’ soccer federations across the board need to catch up to foster and support their players. For smaller countries with even fewer resources, these inequities become more painfully obvious on the global stage.

My kids and I have been moved by other dramatic turns in the tournament. I cried when the Philippines national squad, most of them American-born, celebrated their 1-0 victory over host country New Zealand. We were astonished by the thorough dominance of Japan. My heart surged watching the viral video of the South African team joyously singing together in the locker room before their match. I will never forget the moment Morocco’s Nouhaila Benzina ran onto the pitch and became the first female player to compete in a hijab at this global tournament. And I felt chills when Jamaica, a squad that had to rely on crowdsourcing campaigns to support their tournament preparations, bounced the mighty Brazil — and Marta — out of the tournament.

Watching these games has also felt deeply personal. When the US played Vietnam in their opening match, I felt relieved when the Vietnamese held their own, giving up only three goals to the tournament favorite. And while they didn’t make it past the group stage, I know many Vietnamese feel pride over the nation’s first showing in the World Cup.

These profound connections — some individual, others international in scope — are a big part of why so many viewers, soccer fans or not, find the World Cup enthralling. And in this tournament, the excitement is amplified by seeing so many women of color taking center stage in a sporting event of global import. Based on the 16 teams who have survived this next round, with a historic number of first-time nations (including South AfricaJamaica and Morocco), it’s energizing to consider how the game is only going to grow more diverse with their successes.

Seeing players who look like you matters. It inspires young children to realize they can play too. I remember watching ice skaters Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan winning medals during the Winter Olympics, and my father would loudly fantasize how that could be me. It was an irrational hope, but still a hope. A fantastical dream that anything is possible because these athletes had proven it.

My children shouldn’t have to wait every four years to see so many brown and Black professional soccer players play at the elite level. In the Bay Area region where my family lives, our children’s youth soccer teams have more diversity than we’ve ever seen at the professional level. My hope, fostered by what I’ve seen in the Women’s World Cup so far, is they won’t have to wait much longer to see pros who look like them on teams all over the world.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

Article Topic Follows: CNN-Opinion

Jump to comments ↓

CNN Newsource


KIFI Local News 8 is committed to providing a forum for civil and constructive conversation.

Please keep your comments respectful and relevant. You can review our Community Guidelines by clicking here

If you would like to share a story idea, please submit it here.

Skip to content