2019 Women's World Cup

'We Played a Bunch of Cowards' – The Best Beefs in Women's World Cup History

Women's football is more than just one big feel-good love fest.
Svenja Huth of Germany argues with Noko Matlou of South Africa
Svenja Huth of Germany argues with Noko Matlou of South Africa. Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images

Hugs, tears, drought-breaking goals, emotive tales of teams qualifying against the odds. If you were to judge this year's FIFA Women's World Cup on the headlines alone, you could be excused for thinking that all this tournament is about is feel-good clickbait.

But despite constant coverage of women's sport as nothing more than an upbeat love fest, something else has been playing out on and off the pitch. The world's best athletes have been fighting to win using not only their skills, but also their words and the occasional elbow to the ribs. The women at this World Cup are competitors at the pinnacle of their talents, and they're not here to hug it out. If the occasion calls for it, women's football can get nasty.


After Australia came back from two goals down to beat Brazil last week, the Matildas' captain, Sam Kerr, was fired up in her post-match interview. "There were a lot of critics talking about us, but we're back, so suck on that one," she said. Kerr was responding to criticism her side had received after their opening round defeat to Italy. "Nervous"; "rattled"; "disastrous" and "ridiculous" were some of the terms used to describe the Matildas. And Kerr had every right to be pissed off – as she later tweeted, a lot of the criticism she and her teammates received was misogynistic and homophobic.

Kerr's words are a good reminder of something that should be obvious, but gets lost because women’s sport is often seen as just a warm and fuzzy expression of female empowerment: women in football are very good at talking shit about each other.


Sam Kerr. Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Most of the spite at this World Cup has centred around a certain 13 - 0 win. USA striker Alex Morgan bagged five goals in her team's shellacking of Thailand and she heartily celebrated each one, as did her six teammates who also recorded their names on the scoresheet.

Enter: their northern neighbours. Former Canada international Clare Rustad wasn't impressed, saying: "I just think they could have won with some humility and grace, and they just couldn't manage to do that." Kaylyn Kyle, Rustad's old teammate on the national team, also weighed in: "As a Canadian… we would just never, ever think of doing something like that… it's disrespectful, it's disgraceful."


Megan Rapinoe, who scored a goal in the win, invited the critics to take it outside: "If anyone wants to come at our team for not doing the right thing, not playing the right way, not being the right ambassador for the sport, they can come at us."

The Americans have been the best team in the world for most of the last two decades. Being the best both makes you a magnet for abuse and teaches you how to give it.

Take, for example, Team USA's former goalkeeper Hope Solo, who loves a scrap. Her college coach once warned the football world: "Don’t ever be surprised by anything she says – that's rule number one. Hope Solo is not tied up in a nice, neat package with a bow, at all." And honestly, why should she be? She is a two-time Olympic champion and World Cup winner.

Throughout her career, Solo has never been far away from a verbal tirade, taking her opponents, teammates, coach and even her federation to task at various times. When Solo was benched for the USA's 2007 World Cup semi-final against Brazil, her anger about coach Greg Ryan's decision was evident on her face. On the field, with Briana Scurry in goal, the US went down 4-0. Immediately after the match ended, Solo stood up from the bench, walked over to the waiting press pool and gave a scathing interview slamming Ryan's decision not to play her. Solo said: "I think anybody that knows anything about the game knows that [it was the wrong decision]. There's no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves."


Years later, at the 2016 Olympics, the USA lost to Sweden on penalties in the quarter final. It was a tense episode in a storied rivalry. Sweden's manager, Pia Sundhage had previously coached the US national team. Once she moved back to her home country, Sundhage's Swedes were one of the few teams that could beat the US in their era of domination.


US goalkeeper Hope Solo (R) sits on the bench with teammate Aly Wagner before losing their 2007 FIFA Women's World Cup semi-final. Photo: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Sundhage wasn't shy, either. In 2015 she made some pretty incendiary claims in an interview with the New York Times, saying that the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year, Abby Wambach, would have been on the bench had Sundhage stayed on, calling star player Carli Lloyd "a challenge to coach" and referring to Solo as difficult to manage, "especially when it comes to trouble".

After her team's loss to Sundhage's new side, Solo made accusations about Sweden’s style of play that earned her a six month suspension from US Soccer. "We played a bunch of cowards. The best team did not win today. I strongly, firmly believe that… They didn’t want to play great soccer, entertaining soccer… I think it was very cowardly."

Sundhage saw it another way, saying: "It's OK to be a coward if you win.”

Sam Kerr’s quote was quickly emblazoned on shirts. As for Hope Solo, she’s in the commentary box this World Cup, so you only need to tune in to hear her shit-talk other players. But wherever their fighting words are directed, I want to hear more from these women.