Where is Spain?
Catalan women play like Catalan men. I make this banal observation from the stands of the third annual seven-aside women's tournament in Sant Celoni, a short train ride from Barcelona.
Like everyone else outside Germany, people in Spain are only dimly aware of the Women's World Cup.
Even the women attending this tournament didn't have plans to watch the opening match. At least half this crowd will head from the pitch to Barcelona Pride. (The World Cup opener is also coordinated with Berlin's Gay and Lesbian Pride festival).
That people here would be indifferent makes sense: Spain's national women's team didn't come close to qualifying. They have never qualified for either the Olympics or the World Cup.This should give us pause. Not only are the men champions of everything, the top Spanish female athletes play in professional and semi-professional leagues alongside national team players who will be playing in the World Cup. They more than hold their on at the international level. Something is clearly wrong.
As I watch the Sant Celoni tournament, I'm constantly on my feet. The skill level at this recreational event on the edge of the Pyrenees is shocking in and of itself, but it also raised many questions for all that it implies about the quality of Spanish women players. Why aren't they in Germany right now? The mostly Catalan players in this tournament are completely unafraid to hold the ball, and show tremendous trust in each other. They pass the ball back into tight spots, to defenders who then coax it through a wall of attack.
Some have a zen-like calm, as if it never occurs to them they might lose possession. That has its own unnerving effect on opponents. You can break a team with that kind of self-confidence. It's seven-a-side, so it's a brutally fast game. The play is fluid - there is none of the blind, reactive play that comes from not having a plan. They know each other, pass and run into space and keep moving. And some of these women can score from any place on the pitch. (The level of the best players was described by the tournament organizers as a couple of steps down from Spain's top division.)
There is no missing Barcelona's influence. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the men's club is, as they like to proclaim, mes que un club: they are the most perfect expression of the region's style and ethos. This is clearly just the way everybody in the region plays, and Barça's just figured out the perfect harvesting system.
Women and men do not play on separate planets. Most of us actually grow up playing with boys and a lot of us continue to play with men. All of the women's teams in the World Cup will have trained against men's teams.
For all the talk about how the two games are different, the players themselves are characterized more by what they share than what they don't. Look at the US: Who squeaks through qualifying matches? Who gives up a goal early and has to claw their way to a win, grabbing victory in the last seconds of the match? Who, at their best, earns respect around the world for their stamina and determination? Brazil's women play with rhythm, a fluid give-and-go game marked by sudden bursts of speed and lots of improvisation. It makes them very hard to predict. They force teams to devote many players to the exclusive work of containing a few. They are hard to beat without engaging the dreaded Catanaccio.
Then we get one of those horrible 1-0 victories that makes you want to kill yourself and throw away the television, just as happens in the men's game. That was the 2007 World Cup championship match between Germany and Brazil. (Sound familiar?) The women I watched in this tournament play an even more refined version of that "Latin" game. Just like their brothers. So why aren't the women champions of everything?
How on earth is it that a country that produces intensely talented players, players who hold their own in the best leagues in the world - How is it this team has not even qualified - ever - for the two most important tournaments in the game?
There is rarely a simple answer to this kind of question. This is one of those rare cases when there is. They have had the same manager for nearly thirty years. Ignacio Quereda. This must be one of the most devastating statements regarding a national association's indifference regarding its women's team. After three decades, such a spectacular record of failure can't be laid at his feet alone. This shame belongs to every person at the Real Federación Española de Fútbol. These people should be put in fútbol jail.
Not surprisingly, players have a lot to say about this situation - they must, because women players hoping for a cap almost never speak out. In a May interview with Nell Enriquez for Equalizer Soccer, the much lauded striker Laura del Rio did just that. She explained her absence from the Spain squad in very stark terms.
NE: Let's talk a bit about the Spaniard Women's National Team. You started in 39 caps and scored 40 goals while with them. What happened during that time?
Del Rio: Yes, that's correct. Being part of the team was a dream come true. Unfortunately things didn't work out with Ignacio Quereda, the manager of the team. He's been with the team for over 28 years. We don't see eye to eye on many things. I'm not the only one who is no longer part of the team due to this. There are many.
NE: Is there any way that you would go back?
Del Rio: Yes, for Quereda to leave the team.
I am not sure I've seen a more direct statement in the women's game. And there is the answer to our question.
Dr. Jennifer Doyle is an Associate Professor in the English Department at the University of California, Riverside, where her research areas include American Literature, Visual Culture, Gender Studies and Critical Theory. Dr. Doyle maintains From a Left Wing , a blog devoted to the cultural politics of soccer. She will be contributing to FOX Soccer throughout the 2011 Women's World Cup.