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Colombia, Ecuador performances show benefits of expanded World Cup

One of the best surprises of the Women's World Cup has been Colombia, affectionately nicknamed las cafeteras or las chicas superpoderosas, set to face the United States on Monday in the round of 16. A few weeks ago, not even the most optimistic Colombian soccer pundit would have chosen the team to make it out of the group stage. Then again, Colombian soccer pundits haven’t discussed the team much at all.

Headed into the weekend, the major Colombian newspapers failed to run any story on the team, apart from a reprint of a piece written by FIFA on the role of the team psychologist. In their last meeting at the 2012 Olympics, the United States defeated the Colombians in a match best remembered for Lady Andrade’s blow to Abby Wambach’s eye. The cafeteras will need a better strategy this time around if they hope to progress.  

Colombia staged the tournament’s most exciting upset (at least until Australia's win against Brazil) last week when it defeated the highly regarded French team, 2-0. France, dubbed the hipster choice for the World Cup title by SI's Grant Wahl, outplayed Colombia for the vast majority of the game. But to the dismay of French fans, Lady Andrade (one almost expects to hear  “Voulez vous couche avec moi,”—a la Lady Marmalade—every time she scores a goal) and Catalina Usme scored on Colombia’s two clear opportunities, while France wasted countless chances and was stonewalled by the excellent Sandra Sepúvelda in goal. Luckily for the U.S., Sepúlveda will be suspended for the next match on yellow card accumulation. 

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The surprise showing of the Colombian team suggests the team was underestimated, part of a trend in a tournament that has shown the increasing parity of women’s soccer. Yes, there were blowouts. But in 1982, when the men’s World Cup expanded to 24 teams, Hungary defeated El Salvador 10-1. In 2002, the second year after the men's tournament expanded to 32, Germany defeated Saudi Arabia 8-0. In this year's women's tournament, there were fewer uneven games as the month went on. That Ecuador improved as the tournament went on, losing to Japan by the slimmest of margins, heralds good things for the future.

The disparate appearances by the Andean sides, with Colombia making an impressive showing and Ecuador a disappointing one, also suggests that the South American system for selecting representatives to the Women’s World Cup is flawed.  Unlike the men’s qualifiers, in which every nation in the confederation plays every other nation twice, the CONMEBOL women’s qualifiers consists of one tournament—the Copa América Femenino.  

This tournament served to qualify teams for not just the Women’s World Cup, but also the Pan-American Games, and the Rio Summer Olympics of 2016. The current system makes evaluating the teams difficult and also hinders their development by reducing their international experience.  Compounding these problems, many of the top female players weren’t released by their club teams to play in the tournament, including Brazilian superstar Marta.

The fact that Ecuador managed to qualify did show that their increasing investment in women’s soccer has paid off. In the CONMEBOL tournament they rose to third place, beating traditionally superior teams from Argentina and Chile, and earned a playoff against CONCACAF’s fourth place team. Surprisingly, Ecuadorian federation took the step of sending scouting mission to the CONCACAF semi-finals, something very few women’s teams do. Head coach Vanessa Arauz attended the games, conspicuously dressed in an Ecuardor Soccer Federation (FEF) track suit, and asked for lineup sheets from members of the press to identify potential opponents.

This is part of a broader pattern of investment: in 2013, the FEF and the Ministry of Sport began providing financial backing to a twelve team national women’s league, run through the amateur wing of the FEF. The league has already begun its third year, and now has two divisions. Colombia, for its part, has a national women’s soccer championship, which started in 2003, that pits teams from different provinces against one another.  

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Do the distinct results—and histories—of Colombia and Ecuador reflect broader differences in women’s sport? Historian Matthew Brown thinks so.

“My hypothesis is that because Colombian women have had world champion titles in other sports, like cycling and speed skating, they’re predisposed to women’s soccer, whereas in Ecuador they are not,” Brown told us.

In a country known more for its beauty queens than its female athletes, we should appreciate the scrutiny that Colombian women face and not downplay the fortitude that it took the national team to stick with the sport. Although 28th in world population, Colombia ranks fifth cosmetic procedures, which is a small indication of the impossible beauty standards. Men’s soccer star James Rodríguez’s wife, Daniela Ospina, a world-class athlete in her own right, has been the target of sexist criticism that questions her femininity.

In Ecuador, there is weaker institutional support for sports. Moreover, Ecuadorians have an ambivalent relationship to soccer as the national sport because their most prominent stars tend to be of Afro-Ecuadorian descent. The perception of soccer as the purview of working class men, and frequently of black men, may make it more difficult for girls and young women to obtain support from their families to pursue soccer. In Colombia this tension has been mitigated by the leadership of stars, like James Rodríguez and Falcao, who are perceived as white.

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The core of las chicas superpoderosas has been together since 2010, when they qualified for the under-20 women’s World Cup. There, the Colombians experienced a similar group: two European powers (Germany and France) and a CONCACAF representative (Costa Rica). Perhaps more impressively, as debutantes at the world stage, Colombia defeated Sweden in the quarterfinals before falling to eventual runners-up Nigeria in the semifinal match.

The fourth-place finish in their first international event gave the team a sense of the pressures they would face.

The following year, their first trip to the women’s World Cup, las cafeteras faced off against Sweden, the United States, and North Korea in the group phase in Germany. Though Colombia lost two of its three matches, as debuts go, they performed admirably, falling 1-0 to Sweden and 3-0 to the United States before playing a scoreless draw with the North Koreans. Colombia fared less well in the 2012 Olympics, losing their three group-stage games.  

But writing off the Colombians as pushovers might be a risky move by the United States. While Lady Andrade’s prediction of a Colombian victory may be overly bold, her words suggest that las cafeteras are not easily intimidated.  Just ask the French.   

Brenda Elsey teaches at Hofstra University, and is currently writing a book with Joshua Nadel, Futbolera: The History of Women and Sports in Latin America. She is also the author of Citizens and Sportsmen: Politics and Futbol in Twentieth Century Chile. She can be followed on Twitter @politicultura

Joshua Nadel is author of Fútbol!: Why Soccer Matters in Latin America (2014). His work has also appeared in The Telegraph, and the Washington Post. He teaches at North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina. He can be followed on Twitter @jhnadel.