The juxtaposition was, as Megan Rapinoe had said a day earlier, ridiculous. It was also perfect, an opportunity to show the resounding strength of the U.S. women and offer a firm rebuttal to those who don’t value women or believe they’re deserving of respect.
Four days after the release of a report showing a pervasive culture of abuse in the NWSL and indifference to it by league and U.S. Soccer officials, the Americans played England in what was billed as a friendly but was really a celebration of the women’s game and those who play it. The reigning World Cup champions vs. the European champions in what could be a preview of next year’s World Cup final, played at the iconic Wembley Stadium in front of a sold-out crowd of almost 77,000.
“I’m proud of the players to even be on the field, to play this game. It wasn’t easy,” U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski said after the 2-1 loss to England.
“I applaud their bravery and I applaud their fearless mentality and relentlessness,” he added. “Once again, they showed nothing can stop them from playing the game that they love. I’m very proud of them, and hoping we never have to go through that again.”
Nights like Friday show why that day will come. Not in time for all of the women who had to bare their souls to former U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates’ team and those still conducting the joint investigations for the NWSL and NWSL Players Association. Not fast enough for the majority of us, who are enraged that there are still some who see woman as less than or put their own interests ahead of their protection.
But eventually. Women cannot – will not – be denied.
People in the United States might not realize it, but women in England were actually banned from playing soccer for a half-century. This is the 50th anniversary of the first Lionesses team to play after the ban was lifted in 1971, and they were honored before the USWNT and England kicked off.
Think of that. Fifty years after grudgingly allowing women to play, England’s team is the European champion and so popular it sold out Wembley in less than 24 hours. Its players are touted as role models on how to be strong and self-confident and resilient, and they showed against the USWNT that they don’t back down from anybody.
Men and women, including Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the cast of Ted Lasso, braved the wet, cold night to see England play on a field they wouldn’t have been allowed near in the not-so-distant past. To take on the USWNT, who have been the standard bearers for equality on and off the field, no less.
“England won the game, but women’s soccer won tonight,” Andonovski said.
Andonovski had said before the game that the final result wasn’t important. The USWNT hates to lose any game, but a friendly is not the same as a knockout game in the World Cup or the Olympics, and playing England was all about getting ready for next summer’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
Andonovski wanted to see how his younger players fared against a tough opponent in a hostile environment and, for the most part, they did well. Sophia Smith had a goal and several other chances – “We haven’t seen the best of her,” Andonovski said – while Trinity Rodman had a highlight reel-worthy goal waved off by a dubious video review call.
But what mattered most was that after a week of anger, sadness and frustration, the USWNT got to do what it loved. And see firsthand the support they have.
Players from both teams wore teal armbands, a show of solidarity for survivors of sexual abuse, including those mentioned in the Yates report. Before kickoff, the teams stood behind a teal banner that read “Protect the Players” while the Wembley crowd cheered.
“It gave me goosebumps to see the support from the fans that applauded the moment, I thought it was incredible,” Andonovski said. “It was a statement. A statement that we have to stop the sexual violence.
“The players did an incredible job using this game and this event as a platform to fight against it.”
One game won’t fix the culture of abuse that exists not only in women’s soccer but all women’s sports. One night isn’t enough to erase the toxic attitudes some people have that men are superior and can do whatever they want.
But this game, on this night, showed how powerful women can be when they are given the opportunity. When they are not being marginalized and when doors are not locked to them.
The abuse and indifference detailed in the Yates report took a piece of every woman’s spirit. This game gave a little bit of it back.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USWNT’s game against England shows the women will eventually win