Opinion: Kicking around thoughts on soccer

By JEAN DUFFY

Published: 07-09-2023 7:01 AM

Jean Duffy is a recreational soccer player and debut author of “Soccer Grannies: The South African Women Who Inspire the World.” She splits her time between Strafford and Somerville, Mass.

The FIFA Women’s World Cup starts next week. So will the debate on the differences between women’s and men’s soccer. Rest assured, this 64-year-old player has done on- and off-the-field research. I’m eager to share what I have gleaned.

In my mid-forties I moved from the sidelines watching my daughters play to chasing the ball, breathless on the field. I was born too early to benefit from Title IX; there was no girls’ soccer at my high school in the 1970s.

My first team sport of any kind, I was fortunate to find a group of women just starting to play. I was hooked in no time. Our group grew by word of mouth to friends, and friends of friends. Within a few years, we had teams playing in indoor and outdoor leagues as well as less competitive scrimmages.

More recently younger women, who honed their skills in high school and college, have joined our numbers. They handle the ball with an ease that I can only dream of. But I try to make up for it. I run hard, bring an enthusiastic spirit, and am a keen observer of the game.

Moving beyond women’s soccer about eight years ago, I joined a weekly, coed pickup game. These diehard 25- to 75-year-olds play year-round, even with snow dusting the ground. We warm up (our jaws and our legs) while someone distributes the pinnies. In this crowd of talented women and men, my skills are even more unremarkable, but it’s a good-spirited, caring community where players of all abilities are welcomed. I always have fun and swallow my weekly dose of humility.

In preparation for this round of the Women’s World Cup, in addition to my sweaty gender observations on the pitch, I have pored through scholarly articles and opinionated sports posts on the differences between women’s and men’s soccer. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Men are faster. It comes down to a larger lung capacity and more hemoglobin. Men’s legs are stronger. Statistically women’s lower bodies are 66% as strong. Not too surprising. But hold on, it gets more interesting.

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Women score more goals. Across all World Cup games through 2010, women scored 3.31 goals per game versus the men’s 2.47. Researchers postulate that a smaller female goalie has a greater challenge defending the goal.

In a low-scoring sport like soccer, an extra goal per game is certainly something a fan can celebrate. (I don’t recommend it, but I once scored a goal when the ball ricocheted off my face. The pain vanished when I realized it was the game-winning goal.)

There is a marked difference in the style of play. Aspects of emotional intelligence are important for sports performance: recognizing your own emotional state, sensing other’s mental condition, understanding how to motivate yourself, and building teammate relationships. Women on average score higher in emotional awareness, empathy, and interpersonal connections. Men tend to score higher in assertiveness, self-confidence, and optimism. Men’s soccer style reflects these differences with more shots on goal following an individual play. Shots on goal by women more often follow a team play of multiple short passes.

I observe more men than women charging through a wall of defenders, whether it is the tantalizing twinkled-toed twirler dancing with the ball or the bludgeoner blasting his way toward the goal. I’ll admit my performance skews too far in the other direction. I tend to get rid of the ball ASAP due to the negative chatter in my brain that I better pass the ball before someone steals it from me.

Women have fewer injuries during play. They fall and pop right up, rather than writhing and stalling, making for a smoother game. The difference has been measured in minutes of play and percentages of real injuries.

You may argue that men flopping on the ground, “faking” to lure the ref into issuing a yellow card, is part of the game. Personally, I’m not impressed.

FIFA could equalize the game for women by instituting a 20% smaller pitch, a shorter goal, a 70-minute game, and a smaller ball.

I respect the data-crunching scientists who performed this research. Nevertheless, I’m not arguing for changing the game. In fact, I like the fact that women are playing a tougher game. I celebrated when the U.S. national team women finally won the battle for equal pay. Maybe these statistics justify an argument for higher pay.

Bottom line, I suggest we enjoy the game for what it is.

Occasionally I receive a perfect pass and fire the ball into the goal. No matter your gender and no matter whether you are a professional soccer player, a 9-year-old, or a 64-year-old, scoring a goal is one sweet feeling. On that point, we can all agree.

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