Book Review: The Making of the Women’s World Cup

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In The Making of the Women’s World Cup: Defining Stories from a Sport’s Coming of Age, Kieran Theivam and Jeff Kassouf take us on a journey across seven tournaments, spanning almost three decades, and deliver well on the promise of the title. These are indeed some of the defining stories of the event, which collectively come together to construct a broader picture of the women’s game as a whole.

Each chapter focuses on a specific country, and generally centers on the specific tournament that defines that group. That means that each of the winners gets a chapter, but also allows for a few other interesting stories that don’t necessarily result in lifting the trophy at the end. For example, we get to follow the Australian teenagers as they work their way into a team on the margins of the event, and see them build up toward becoming one of the rising superpowers in the game. There is a similar chapter that focuses on England’s transition from a fringe player to a serious contender. 

This decision to tell narrower and more specific stories is very helpful, since it reduces the size and scope of the event, and allows emotion and experience to shine through. As Theivam and Kassouf present things, you get a clear sense of how the tournament progressed through the eyes of those actually participating. That doesn’t necessarily tell us everything we might want to know about the event, but it provides focus and clarity that might get lost in an effort to be more comprehensive. The story of how Silvia Neid or Kelly Smith or Julie Foudy reacted in a particular moment is bolstered if you’ve had a chance to dig into their story in some detail.

This combines with the other nice feature of the book: its ability to balance between straightforward reporting on the action (who scored the goals, who made the saves, how the individual games ebbed and flowed) and broader discussion of the social and cultural experience. The ability to draw on extensive interviews of the subjects themselves helps enormously here. You don’t just get a sense of what happened but also what it meant, and how people felt.

I do have two minor areas where I was left wanting a little more. The first is in the editing. This definitely reads like a book that needed to come out quickly to hit a deadline. It’s by no means a huge problem. The writing is fine; it just could have been tightened up a bit with another round of edits.

The second is more thematic. For completely understandable reasons, this is primarily a book about the big western countries (the US gets four chapters, England two, with just one for Brazil, Germany, Australia, and Japan, and none for any other nation). To be fair, those are generally the countries who have played the biggest role in the tournament, and you couldn’t reasonably tell ‘the defining stories of a sport’s coming of age’ without them. The US, after all, has won three World Cups and has come agonizingly close to another. It’s also the biggest media market and a two-time host of the event. And if you wanted to pick the single moment where the sport ‘came of age,’ the two most compelling answers might be the final matches of 1999 and 2015.

Still, there are plenty of important stories that don’t come from these few nations. It would be wonderful to dig into the experience of the great Chinese team of the 90s, the Norwegian winners from 1995, not to mention countries like Costa Rica, Nigeria, Colombia, etc. The World Cup, after all, isn’t purely an event for the winners. It takes an entire field of competition to produce the final result, and there are fascinating stories all along the way—many from players who had to sacrifice far more to bring themselves to this place.

This isn’t a critique of the book, which understandably had to make choices about where to devote its attention, and presumably was dependent on what kinds of interviews were available to fill in the gaps. It’s more just a recognition that there are still a lot of interesting stories still to be told in this area. All of which might be fertile ground for a follow-up, if the authors were so inclined.

Ultimately, this isn’t an encyclopedic study of every twist and turn, though it does offer a nice bit of that as well. But if you’re excited for this summer’s tournament, and want to get some perspective on what it all means, you won’t find a better resource than this book.

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