The Women's World Cup is over. The confetti from the New York parade has been picked up. The Sports Illustrated commemoratives are on the newsstands, and by the time you read this might already be gone.
Just because the spotlight fades doesn't mean the game goes away. And just because the spotlight was there doesn't mean there isn't still a lot more work to do - especially outside of the nations that are women's soccer's traditional powers.
There's an Olympics to look forward to, of course, but in much of the world that won't bring the same kind of attention that the World Cup does. So if you're going to get at the foundation-level work that the women's game needs to thrive sustainably, you have to capture the glow of the World Cup as much as possible.
Two days before the World Cup final, something happened in Vancouver which attempted to do just that. FIFPro, the worldwide soccer players' union, announced that it is opening its membership to women for the first time in its 50-year history.
"We think that [it] is unacceptable, the situation of women - at least in every country where women's football is played, that they have to have the same certain minimum requirements as the men, and we have to in football respect the female players as professionals," Dutch-born general secretary Theo van Seggelen said. "Women have not always have had access to the best representation... We want to change that. "
If you're just a casual soccer fan, or if you follow the game but aren't so interested in its politics, you might not know much about FIFPro. I will venture, though, that you have at least heard of it, because it's included in the opening credits screen of EA Sports' wildly popular FIFA soccer video game series. Electronic Arts is FIFPro's biggest commercial sponsor, and not just for the purpose of allying brands.
The California-based software company takes a real interest in FIFPro's mission. It also has a growing interest in women's soccer, as evidenced by the video game debut of women's players in FIFA 16.
"Our team at EA Sports has had a great working relationship with FIFPro for many years," senior vice president Matt Bilbey said. "Now to be able to hear their plans for women's football is really exciting."
Some of you might be wondering why it took FIFPro so long to make this move. There have been Women's World Cups contested every four years since 1991. Germany's Frauen-Bundesliga was launched in 1990, and Sweden's Damallsvenskan in 1988. The success of the 1999 Women's World Cup in the United States led to the Women's United Soccer Association launching in 2001, and UEFA starting the Women's Champions League in the same year.
It seems pretty clear that women's soccer hit a critical mass this summer, with expansion of the World Cup to 24 teams a key factor. The sport is growing in prominence in more countries than ever, and crucially, there are enough professional women's players across the globe now that they can make some real noise when they speak together.
FIFPro officially represents every professional player who is represented by a national players' union. It does not collectively bargain with FIFA or any national or continental entity, but it does serve as a collective voice for players.
The organization has high-profile support from many of the biggest stars of the men's game. That was proven by the video FIFPro showed at its press conference which included Arjen Robben, Thomas Müller and Andrés Iniesta, among many others. They were joined on camera by a number of top female players, including Marta.
Van Seggelen made it clear that FIFPro is taking up gender equity in the global game as one of its signature issues.
"Many women have the same spirit as men's footballers: they breathe football, they have to train every day, they earn unfortunately not too much money yet," he said. "I can also speak in the name of all the men: there is not any footballer in the world who does not respect women's football."
That is some pretty lofty rhetoric, but van Seggelen had backup from two colleagues who joined him on the dais. One was Hull City midfielder Sone Aluko, whose sister Eniola is a forward on Chelsea's women's team.
"Thanks to my sister's career, I've been a close observer of women's football for a long time, and being a professional has given me a unique perspective on the challenges that the women's game has faced -and the contrast between my professional career and her professional career," Sone said. "We had the same dreams growing up - we both wanted to be wanted at the pinnacle of sports, the pinnacle of football... but the realization of that dream, the path I've taken and the path she's taken are worlds apart."
Sone and Eniola were born in Nigeria and moved to Birmingham, England at a young age. Both started their soccer careers with Birmingham City, and over the years have enjoyed success at both the club and international levels - Sone for Nigeria and Eniola for England.
"For young girls who want to be professionals and they dream about it, the realization of that dream and what the dream actually was when they were young will be closer," Sone said. "A lot of the things we're going to achieve, she's not going to get the benefit of, but we understand that there's a responsibility to the next generation to benefit from what we're starting today."
Next to Sone was former Swedish women's national team goalkeeper Caroline Jönsson, who is heading up FIFPro's outreach efforts in the women's game. She admitted that it took some convincing for her to believe the organization was serious about bringing women into the fold, because of the dominance of men in its power structure. But she's fully on board now.
"When FIFPro approached me and asked me if I would be engaged in this, to be honest, I was a little bit skeptical," she said. "I can really say they have delivered from the beginning."
There has already been some tangible proof of progress. As part of its welcoming of women into the fold, FIFPro also announced that players can now apply directly for membership in FIFPro instead of having to first be a member of a national-level union.
"If you don't have a union you can join, from now on, you can join FIFPro," Jönsson said. "Players who play for a national team or in a national league and have a written contract, we consider them professional and they are welcome to join FIFPro... We will not leave any more players alone, and that is the message FIFPro is standing here today saying: From now on, we will be engaged in the women's game too."
Jönsson is heading up a women's advisory board within FIFPro that will help administer a survey of female players across the globe. Other notable names on the board include Spain and former Philadelphia Independence midfielder Véronica Boquete; Swedish star Lotta Schelin; Australian stalwart Lydia Williams; and former Mexican captain Mónica González, known to many of you as an analyst for ESPN and Fox.
"This is a marathon, not a sprint - we are starting, taking the first important steps here," Jönsson said. "The diversity of women's football is huge, and we have to be able to adapt and reach out to all of them,"
FIFPro's initial goals are pretty straightforward. As with any union, the organization wants collectively bargained standards for contracts at the club and national team levels.
"We are working at minimum requirements and a standard contract, and helping players sign contracts to help them look to certain respects that will make them professional," Jönsson said. "We are looking at minimum standards to make it a little bit clearer [so that] the players know for themselves."
That already exists in countries where the women's game is well-established. Jönsson noted that collective bargaining agreements exist in England, France, Sweden, Norway and New Zealand, and you can add the United States to that list as well. Australia is taking things a step farther, as the men's and women's unions are working on a unified CBA for both national team programs.
Of course, that work is not so easy in parts of the world which don't value gender equity. Changing perceptions in those places is a huge fight, but Jönsson said FIFPro is ready to take it up.
"In some countries they are deciding that women are not professional, and it has nothing to do with contracts, nothing to do with money," she said. "So we are also working in the political arena to try to change that."
Even in countries that treat women and women's sports equally to men, there are still some ways in which female athletes are second-class. And the same can be said of international sports governing bodies. The Women's World Cup demonstrated that pretty clearly.
You might be able to guess where I'm going with this. And before you close your browser tab, just give me a chance on this for a moment. Because honestly, I rolled my eyes a bit when van Seggelen brought up artificial turf. The issue was decided well before the World Cup, never mind well before the last Saturday of the tournament.
He went there, though, and he went there hard. So I decided to try to find some kind of different way to get at the matter instead of rehashing the same tropes over and over again.
First, here's what van Seggelen had to say on the matter - the principle, the execution and the attempt by a group of women's players from across the globe to get a human rights tribunal in the Canadian province of Ontario to force FIFA to bring in natural grass.
His remarks included a stance about playing men's tournaments on artificial surfaces, so this might be worth saving for down the road:
For players who have been disregarded and disrespected - as was the case when the decision was taken, for instance, to stage the World Cup on artificial turf - we also tried to intervene. Unfortunately we were a little bit too late.
[Turf] is a development that we cannot stop... I think that we have done a lot of research even in the new generation there is not any player who prefers - I will not say that, but 99 percent of our players are more willing to play on natural grass. Personally I think we cannot stop the development. Even in my country, the Netherlands, we have artificial pitches and it has to do with financial conditions because it is much cheaper.
I remember that Jérôme Valcke, the [FIFA] secretary general, said that yes, maybe the men will also play in the future on artificial turf. I can say as long as FIFPro will exist - and I hope it's another 50 years - we will not play on artificial turf. And I think also that for women's football, at the World Cup, they have to have the same circumstances as the men, and that means that we think that the regulation has to be changed. The regulations are not quite clear, but the ultimate conditions for men must be equal for women."
It is working very well - I've been last week in Africa [and] it is working very well over there. But I think if you cannot play on natural grass in the World Cup, you have to think by yourself - what are we talking about?
By the way, it was also not clear if we could win the case. We don't want, as we would in a football match, we don't want to lose court cases. We had some doubts about the outcome. In fact if you looked at it from that perspective first of all we were too late involved, and secondly, as has already been said, the decision was already made.
That last quote particularly got my attention. I would not have expected FIFPro to publicly admit that it didn't pick the fight out of fear of losing it. But that says a lot about just how powerful FIFA is relative to every other entity in soccer.
As the TurfGate furor raged in the months before the World Cup kicked off, I could not escape the sense that one of the emotions driving the Canadian soccer community's response to it was a desire to not be told what to do by the United States. You do not have to have followed the game up north for very long to realize that this is a recurring dynamic with both the men and the women.
So I put it to veteran Canadian goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc, who was also on the podium: How much of this was a PR battle that was lost in part because the Americans led it? And specifically, Abby Wambach, long a villain in Canada because she provoked the famous six-second foul on Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod that turned around the 2012 U.S-Canada Olympic semifinal?
"Says who?" quipped LeBlanc, who knows Wambach plenty well.
LeBlanc also knew that she and her teammates have been virtually silent on the issue this whole time, because they couldn't go against status quo put forth by the Canadian Soccer Association. Now, with Canada out of the tournament and LeBlanc's international career over, she could let her guard down. Here was her answer in full:
Well, for us, the issue was our association went off and tried to make sure they hosted a World Cup in our country, and that's how they made the bid with turf. So we knew that was the situation going in.
Would we rather grass? Yes. But for us, it was more about the opportunity to have a World Cup in our home country. So we've been training on turf ever since we found out that we'd be hosting it, and I mean, for us it was just about knowing that was the situation going in. So, I hope you liked the World Cup?
I'll be honest with you - again, we knew that when we put in the bid, it would be on turf. And when we won it, it was on turf. So for us, it was more of, 'Okay guys, this is the mindset, this is what it's going to be on. It's probably not going to change.' As you've said [referring to her FIFPro colleagues], it's probably not going to change overnight.
And so for us, it was more about, 'Let's find the best way to perform under these conditions, and make this a World Cup that people won't forget.' I mean, the turf issue has been an issue, but I think will walk away with is knowing and seeing that the game has grown, seeing that soccer is better for women. It will be a fantastic final, and I think whether you like the turf or not, it's a successful World Cup and the game has grown.
What the CSA and FIFA did shouldn't be put on the players, who had no power over it. Still, hearing that from LeBlanc brought me a sense of closure, and I hope it does for a few of you too.
If it doesn't, consider this from Jönsson. From her perspective, had it not been for TurfGate, FIFPro might not have gotten involved with the women's game in the first place. The matter came up at a board meeting in December of 2014, and Jönsson said the discussion served as "a tipping point for FIFPro to get engaged in women's football."
That was news.
"This, ultimately, was the question that made the board say that the women need support," she said. "This was the question saying that from now on, FIFPro will support the women, because it was so obvious that they needed someone to speak for them early on.... I think that what the players did, and what Abby [Wambach] did leading that, helped a lot for us sitting here today and having FIFPro engaged in the women's game too."
It might not be long before FIFPro jumps into the fray again. There's a big controversy right now in Spain, where Boquete has been leading the charge to get women's national team coach Ignacio Quereda fired after 27 years at the helm.
Yes, Spain finally reached the World Cup for the first time this summer. But Boquete and her teammates have seen that much more is possible, and they're using the attention gained from reaching the World Cup as leverage.
"We have been un-respected so many times, and that has to stop," Boquete said. "We have to take care of each other, we have to protect each other, protect our rights, and I really believe that FIFPro, this organization, can help us to deal with so many issues, so many things that we have to fix, and help our sport to grow... I hope that after today, something new will come and something better, especially in women's soccer, will happen."
Boquete and her teammates wrote an open letter to the Spanish federation that was published by a few outlets, including widely-read sports newspaper AS.
"Once confidence is lost and the ability to connect and transmit ideas to the squad is gone, it is very difficult for objectives to be reached," the players wrote. "We still have a long road to go down and many doors will open along the way. This is a great moment for our sport - with many challenges and dreams lying ahead, which is why we feel that it is our joint responsibility to set the path we know we have to take."
The letter noted a lack of adequate training and preparation before the tournament. Spanish newspapers have also reported anecdotes of Quereda insulting players and calling them overweight. If you speak Spanish (or if you're willing to put up with Google Translate), read this interview that former striker Mar Prieto gave AS last December.
Last month, midfielder Victoria Losada told Marca, Spain's most famous sports newspaper, that Quereda treated the players " as children, not as professionals."
As criticism of Quereda grew, he initially was defiant.
"I won't resign," he told reporters at Madrid's airport when the team returned home. "If I were to plan the team again, it would be the same."
But the players were able to make their case, requesting and receiving meetings with Spanish federation president Ángel María Villar Llona and head of women's soccer Vicente Temprado.
"We explained everything - not just about this World Cup, and preparation, but all the years and the situation," Boquete said in Vancouver. And by the way, she came back to Canada from Spain just for the FIFPro press conference.
"They understood and they listened to us, and obviously right now there are so many things going on in our federation, not just in women's football," she added. "We know that we have to be patient, and we have to trust and believe that they will do something, and that has to happen before the next tournament."
There was a report at the end of June that Quereda was finally going to step down - though not until, as Marca reported, he got a chance to "defend and explain himself against the accusations of the players." On Tuesday, Marca reported that Quereda was notified by the Spanish federation that he will be removed from his post as head coach of the senior team, but he will continue to have a role within the organization.
While in Vancouver, Boquete repeatedly emphasized the importance of increased media coverage of women's soccer in changing perceptions of the sport in Spain.
"In Spain, the mentality of the people is still not the same as you have in the U.S. or here in Canada," she said. "So it's really important for us that all the sponsors, all the companies really believe in the sport, in women's football. And if we are more public, if people know about us like players, like role models, that will [make] a big push for us to fight for and reach different things."
Maybe some of that was buttering up the journalists in the room. But even in the United States, we saw that Fox's treatment of the Women's World Cup as a big deal helped lead the American public to view it as a big deal. And Boquete was dead on in saying that corporate sponsors need to play a role in promoting women's soccer, especially given the influence they can have with FIFA.
Which brings us to the one element that was lacking at the FIFPro press conference: American influence.
There were plenty of American reporters in the room, and some high-powered ones at that. But there weren't any current American players in attendance or on FIFPro's press release. Nor were there any major American commercial sponsors present beyond EA, which develops the FIFA series out of its Vancouver office.
In fairness, the main reason for the lack of American players was that it was the day before the biggest game of their lives, and they were practicing at just about the same hour. Jönsson made it clear that she and the organization excused their absence. And there were clear demonstrations of support from Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, Abby Wambach, Hope Solo and Shannon Boxx in this video:
Still, the lack of any American presence in the press release - which included all of the names on the new FIFPro women's advisory board - got attention.
Former U.S. national team defender Leslie Osborne, who worked as a studio and game analyst for Fox's World Cup broadcast, told me she hopes that current or former American step up - and she said she might be one of them.
"A lot of the things that we're fighting for, luckily the U.S. is privileged enough to have," she told me. "We need to have a strong engagement in this group and we can make a huge impact, because where we're at compared to some of these other teams, it's night and day. I can't wait to see who from the U.S. team or if us, any of the former players can get involved."
Current U.S. defender and longtime captain Christie Rampone also told me that she will consider getting involved.
"Any time a female can be on any board or any committee that can have a voice, that's definitely something I would look into," she said.
For now, González is the only representative on the board from a CONCACAF nation. It's not at all surprising that she's involved, given her many years of work trying to grow the women's game in Mexico and Mexican-American immigrant communities.
"I do think in the long run it's going to be very important for the United States players and Canadian players to be a part of [the advisory board], because right now, this is where the market is, this is where money is," she said. "That's one of the things that for me, over the course of my career, has made me realize what I can do to help grow Mexico [by] having this contact with players around the world... We've all sort of suffered the same injustice of - it's a gender gap, I guess, in our profession, that's all it is. It's a gender gap in our profession, and it's a big one."
In the short term, González said that the first step will be to simply explain to women's players what FIFPro is and why it matters to them.
"Players need to be sat down and spoken to - not by their coach and not by someone within their own federation, probably someone like Cari [Jönsson] or former players and be told exactly what all this means, because it's something that many of us are asking ourselves," González said. "[FIFPro] are putting in a lot of resources because they know that in 10, 15, 30, 50 years, this is going to be like golf and tennis... We're all united by that feeling of wanting more and knowing we can be more, [and] this is an organization that will do that."
The last word goes to van Seggelen. Although he talked far more than he probably should have during the press conference - and he didn't always stay on topic - he nonetheless said a lot of interesting things.
If it's possible to condense his message into one sentence (which, I'll admit, would have made this blog post a lot shorter), I'd say it's this: There is a lot of room not just for FIFPro to grow women's soccer, but for women's soccer to grow FIFPro.
"The women have an enormous opportunity here to take control of their own destiny, and not to make the same mistakes as the men's game," he said. "We are governed by people who are not interested in the game at all, and unfortunately I have a lot of examples... All of us together demand a game to be proud of [and] I think that the women can become a driving force in this."
He added that while it took FIFPro the first 25 years of its existence to organize the men's game, he thinks "we can do it [with the women's game] in a very short term."