World Cup women: free to play with fury

The women of World Cup 2023 have arrived. This “hip check” by Netherlands mid-fielder Danielle Van de Donk convinces me.

Truth is, I cringed when I first saw it. Look at the buckling of that knee. The expression on US midfielder Lindsey Horan’s face. The moment of impact is bone-crunching.

Fortunately for Horan her foot is not planted so, even as the whole leg buckles inward the ACL doesn’t snap. But what aggression from the Orange. What fury. Immediately, angry words are exchanged. There’s shoving and yelling. So much that — and comically so — referee Yoshimi Yamashita brings Van de Donk over to apologize to Horan.

I actually laughed out loud at the image. I can just see myself calling my daughters over after a hurtful dispute and telling the transgressor, “Say you’re sorry.” Lotta good that will do. A quick lipread reveals Horan’s response, “I don’t accept that apology.”

Now things really get fun. Horan is livid. Van de Donk seems almost giddy. They shuffle and scrum in front of the Netherlands goal. Even commentator Aly Wagner calls it, “the best response Horan can make is to put it into the back of the net.” Which Horan, in her fury, immediately does.

What a showcase for these athletes! Playing with anger and fury. Physical in a way the world has not seen until now.

Are these men? Because men are expected to play this way. Women are supposed to play politely, within the rules, with finesse and skill but not all this force. Right? No, this is what the highest level of the women’s game looks like now. Unapologetically physical. And unfortunately, too often with the injuries to show for it.

So why do I celebrate the arrival of his aggressiveness from women? Because of this:

After the game, the two gladiators greet each other as friends.

For as long as I can remember a critical difference between men’s and women’s competition was that men could leave it all on the field. No matter how hotly contested, they’d shrug it off and have a beer afterward. Women couldn’t or at least didn’t do this. They stewed and held a grudge. This was personal. And as long as it was personal, most hesitated to play full force. They didn’t want to risk the fallout of a relationship gone sour or a friendship permanently severed.

This moment showed us something different: two women — teammates on their European team but vicious opponents on their respective National teams — whose friendship is secure. This is freedom. Freedom to compete fully and unapologetically.

The women have arrived. Maybe later there will be chardonnay.

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