Women’s football | 5,624 miles, 7 goals, 2 Portlands and 1 mole (U.S. v. Ukraine)

Editor’s note

With the United States women’s soccer program on virtual hiatus in 2005—the women, like the men, have been playing without a collective-bargaining agreement—U.S. Soccer Federation officials improvised to fill out a slate of impromptu summer friendlies. The result, with many top European sides busy with domestic leagues and the UEFA European Championships between 5 and 19 June, was a lopsided series of contests against Canada (26 June, a 2–0 U.S. victory), Ukraine (10 July, 7–0) and Iceland (24 July, 3–0). The Ukraine contest in particular was notable for, as Alon Raab writes below, having been organized “under an unlucky star.” The essay highlights the competitive inequalities under which international soccer matches are sometimes staged and the obstacles that top-flight women players face in comparison to their male counterparts. Comments about the ad hoc nature of the Ukraine side are reinforced by analyzing the roster of Ukraine’s World Cup qualifier against Norway on 27 August, a 1–4 loss: just five players from the Portland friendly helped make up the squad.

Portland, Oregon | Two days before the 10 July game between the American and Ukrainian women’s soccer teams at the University of Portland (Oregon) field, I rode my bicycle to the stadium. According to the information provided by the U.S. press officer, the visiting team would be practicing and afterward I would be able to interview the players. (The American team practiced mostly at the Nike “campus” in suburban Beaverton.)

Braving a downpour, I arrived at the training field and saw amazingly short players. From my geography lessons I knew that the Ukraine was long considered the breadbasket of Europe, and, although in the last few years the country has gone through much political upheaval, I was not aware of severe food shortages that might have stunted the players’ growth. Approaching closer I realized that the players were American girls in their mid-teens and, after talking to the university’s athletic director, found out that the Ukrainian team was still stuck in London.

From postgame interviews with coach Volodymyr Kulayev, captain Oksana Rezvin, goalie Veronika Shulha, interpreter/accompanist Sergei Kultin and also a local Ukrainian man—a government worker involved with the local youth soccer community who I put in contact with the team in order to help them as they encountered financial and logistical difficulties (and who preferred to remain anonymous, so in this article I call my source “the mole”)—I found out that the unequal conditions between the two teams (matters of ability, finances, training conditions) were exacerbated by an unlucky star under which the whole venture sailed.

Nike refers to its world headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, as “soft-spoken testimony to the beauty of sports.” The facility served as a training ground for the U.S. team.

The Ukrainian women arrived in London soon after the terrorist bombings of Jul 7, but their luggage never did. Since travelers are not allowed to leave the airport without their belongings, they remained at the airport for several days, forced to try and sleep in the noisy and chaotic terminal. Eventually they were allowed to leave, arriving in Portland, Oregon, the evening before the 3 o’clock Sunday game, with none of their suitcases. A national uniform was quickly improvised and shoes purchased.

According to translator Kultin, it was left up to him to scramble to find a suitable place for the weary players. At last he was able to place them at the university dorms, but they were left with little money for food. The American players by contrast stayed at one of Portland’s most elegant hotels and had a week to train, rest and enjoy more nourishing fare than airport and airline food. Sergei laid most of the blame for the disorganization on the American hosts, both the U.S. Soccer Federation and sponsors such as Nike.

Page 1 of 3 | Next page