Sex, the World Cup and Breaking Up the Boys’ Club

Great sport requires only three things: excellence of skill, uncertainty of outcome and a crescendo of drama until the last second. Gender or sex is irrelevant.

Ms. Ryall teaches philosophy at the University of Gloucestershire.

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In a soccer match last year, a ball tumbled aimlessly into the penalty area — almost like a confused pedestrian — about 13 yards from the goal. Two players, caught off guard by its awkward bounce, missed it. But it was seized upon and, just as quickly, thumped into the top corner of the net by a storming attacker’s foot — hit with such zip that it seemed the goalkeeper couldn’t see it, much less stop it. It’s the kind of goal you watch again and again, pressing replay on your phone. It’s the kind of skill that led the attacker who scored the goal, the American soccer star Lindsey Horan, to be among the first players nominated for the first women’s Ballon d’Or prize, the sport’s most prestigious annual award for best player, that for 61 years was only awarded to men.

While Horan and other Ballon d’Or nominees compete for their nations at this summer’s World Cup, which began on the weekend, the winner of last year’s Ballon d’Or prize — the Norwegian Ada Hegerberg — will not be attending. Hegerberg has refused to play for her national team since 2017, in protest over what she sees as discriminatory treatment of the women’s team by the Norwegian football federation. The women receive fewer resources than the nation’s men, who rarely qualify for top competitions like the World Cup, but have plenty.

There’s arguably more excitement for this Women’s World Cup than any before it. But the specter of the best player in women’s soccer not participating on its biggest stage looms large. A battle being jointly led by the Australian and American teams to equalize the $370 million gap in World Cup prize money is making headlines too, as the American women are also separately suing their national federation over “purposeful gender discrimination” based on continued pay gaps — despite yearslong periods they point to in which the women’s team appeared to earn more for the national federation than the men’s. The collective effect has been a reigniting of perennial debates over the nature and perception of women’s sport.

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We’ve all heard the comments about women’s soccer, and women’s sport in general — and maybe we’ve even thought them ourselves: that it’s a poor, substitute version of the real thing. Though perhaps more quietly expressed than in previous decades, that sentiment is widespread; and it’s behind the gender parity disputes that have also resurfaced in tennis, golf and other sports over contracts, prize money and institutional support.

Men, on balance, are indeed faster and stronger than women. The physiological differences between the sexes are why sports are generally sex segregated in the first place. But often overlooked in these classroom and barroom debates are facts that many average Joes don’t like to admit: The top female sprinters and distance runners would easily outpace the vast majority of men; the top female soccer players would run rings around many male sides; and so on.

Some fixate on the statistics that show the gap between the sexes at the elite level of most sports to be indisputable. Sure. But does that make women’s sport unworthy or unwatchable? Of course not. Just as any given match in men’s sport can be mind-numbingly boring, women’s sport can be just as heart-stopping as the very best men can offer: This year the National Football League’s Super Bowl finished 13-3 — an absolute snoozer (with only one underwhelming touchdown), widely panned, despite its designation as the manliest of manly sports in the United States.

Great sport requires only three things: excellence of skill, uncertainty of outcome, and a crescendo of drama that isn’t relinquished until the last second. A battle where players and fans are on edge, mettles are tested, and the game flows in favor of one opponent, then the other, then — depending on who you’re cheering for — back to the other side’s favor again.

Those are the kinds of games we hunger to see and the ones that enter into the history books: Whether they’re played by men or women is neither here nor there.

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The semifinal between Serena Williams and Justine Henin in the 2003 French Open was as nail-biting a drama as any face-off between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal has been at that same tournament. And the 1999 Women’s World Cup final at the Rose Bowl in California, in front of more than 90,000 fans, was electric: The American hosts defeating China thanks to a tournament-winning penalty kick by Brandi Chastain, who famously ripped off her kit’s top in celebration — landing her on the cover of news and sports magazines around the globe.

Those are two remarkable moments among hundreds. Even so, women’s sport has had a poor rap, to put it gently. And lovers of sport fail to adequately account for the fact that women were denied professional, and even amateur, participation in sport for centuries. And when they did begin to participate, they were chastised for being unladylike or were officially banned.

In the early 20th century, tens of thousands of people would turn up to watch women play soccer in England, after they filled the gap in sporting entertainment when most eligible men were abroad fighting in World War I. Then the nation’s official governing body, the Football Association, ruled that soccer wasn’t suitable for women. Almost overnight, women’s soccer was outlawed. The ban — and there were dozens like it across the world — wasn’t overturned until the 1970s. Title IX reforms in the United States didn’t come until then either. (Professional contracts are a recent phenomenon in even the top women’s soccer leagues.)

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If you keep in mind that women have rarely received any livable pay for playing professionally — and that many still pay to play as girls in countries where boys’ leagues are free — then it isn’t strange that the general standard of play does not match that of men. And that’s without accounting for the ambient forces that prevent girls from being fully engaged in sport as they grow up. There’s the oppressive pressure of gender roles as well as explicit exclusion: My 7-year-old niece recently told me she wanted to play soccer in the playground at school, but she was informed by the boys that she couldn’t because she was a girl. In 2019!

It’s unsurprising that our expectations for women’s sports are low. It’s more surprising, in light of pervasive sexism, that so many women’s sports are as objectively great as they are. Great without the fully funded systems, infrastructure and contracts that make the endless hours of youth training worth the return on investment. We should admire — not dismiss — the quality on display at this Women’s World Cup as well as the excellence of women in basketball, cricket, volleyball, track and field and much more.

The physiological differences between the sexes also aren’t the entire ballgame, so to speak. Advocates of women’s sport rightly argue that they are impressive precisely because of women’s relative lack of upper body strength: If you’re unable to muscle your way to victory, you have to think of alternative ways to get there.

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Because of this, women’s sport is often more interesting. I prefer watching Naomi Osaka’s finesse to Novak Djokovic’s more brute power. And soccer is soporific when it’s dominated by the shortcut of long balls slapped diagonally down the field. Tellingly, fans and broadcasters of male leagues find themselves lauding the feminine-like grace of players such as Stephen Curry and Lionel Messi — whooping at how their studied elegance can outwit their bigger, more flat-footed opponents.

Another notch in favor of professional women’s sports is that they provide a much more family-friendly environment. If you’ve ever had the experience of being at a men’s football game in Europe, you are well aware of the febrile atmosphere, the potential for violence. The English FA created a social media video just this May to deter the more mobbish men’s fans, entitled “Don’t be that idiot!”

This summer’s Women’s World Cup is expected to be the most profitable ever, which shows that the sexist dynamics and old mind-sets are slowly improving. But turning welcome change into greater equity will also need the men in gray suits, who still run all sports, to realize that women deserve more. FIFA announced a new agreement this month to promote women’s empowerment in soccer. It doesn’t even directly address pay parity.

For now, the debacle of women’s mistreatment is likely to be temporarily forgotten — for 90 minutes at a time, at least — as the on-field drama kicks off. The upsets, triumphs and tears, while players like the Americans Alex Morgan and Lindsay Horan, the Brazilian maestro Marta and the Dutch sensation Vivianne Miedema scintillate audiences.

Millions will be watching in the stadiums of France, at friends’ homes, in bars or quietly in their workplaces. Let’s hope a critical mass of those watching skeptically become new converts. Fans who recognize the beauty, and the badass, of the women’s game, too.

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Emily Ryall is a reader in applied philosophy in the School of Sport and Exercise at the University of Gloucestershire and the author of “Philosophy of Sport: Key Questions.”

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A version of this article appears in print on , Section A, Page 23 of the New York edition with the headline: Break Up the Boys’ Soccer Club. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe