One could hardly distinguish where the cafe's crumbling façade ended and where the street began. The little shop—and all the others like it along the street—burst with men sitting in flimsy red plastic chairs, drinking fruit smoothies and soda, watching a soccer match.
My sister and I sat among them. We were very likely the only white women in Cairo that night in 2010, watching the final game of the African Cup of Nations from a sidewalk cafe: Egypt versus Ghana. We cheered for Ghana, quietly and to ourselves. When Egypt won, the street filled with moving bodies, horns, flags and red flares, and we decided to move quickly home.
That was, I think, the night we decided we must go to a World Cup—not just for the soccer, but for the scene, the excitement, the passion. To witness that incredible moment when athletes, sometimes from small and mostly forgotten countries, step onto a field of competition, and into view of the world, and give everything they have to a game. You don't have to love soccer to appreciate a moment like that. Pulling ourselves reluctantly away from the near-riotous victory celebration, because we knew better than to stay, we began to hatch a plan that would lead, this month, to my sister and me traveling to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, for the 2015 Women's World Cup.
We arrived just hours before our doubleheader match and rushed to the gates of the 56,000-seat Commonwealth Stadium. Forty minutes before kick-off of China vs. Netherlands, the place was deserted. Inside, a few hundred Chinese fans in red shirts and face paint gathered behind the goal box trying their best to drum up excitement—banging gongs, chanting and waving giant Chinese flags—while a speckling of Netherlands fans gazed silently at the field.
The whole scene was, to say the least, not what I had expected. Things picked up a bit later as Canada gave a strong performance—tying New Zealand—before an appreciative, though not quite rowdy, home crowd of 35,000 fans. Still, it made me consider, once again, how often women's sports get overlooked.
It's a strange conundrum considering how many people, including women, play the sport today. When I was a kid, soccer was still gaining popularity in the United States. There were a few coed kids' teams; I was always on the losing one. Now, nearly 3 million American children play soccer, and nearly half of them are girls. In Canada, almost 50 percent of kids play soccer: twice as many as play hockey. And professionally, the sport is growing for women. Compared to 1971, when only three international women's teams competed in a total of two matches, today there are nearly 141 international women's teams playing hundreds of matches.
But it won't grow much more without an audience.
When someone says women's soccer isn't as interesting as the men's game, challenge them to actually watch a match in this World Cup. I can assure them that these games are as fast, powerful and interesting as any other, especially now that only the strongest teams remain. So get out, watch these athletes and let them inspire you to get out on the field.
WOMEN'S AND COED ADULT RECREATIONAL SOCCER:
Cottonwood/ Salt Lake City coed adult soccer, Meetup.com: A group of around 200 adults, age 18-60, all abilities. Teams not fixed; your opponent one week might be your teammate the next. Summer outdoors, winter indoors. Butler Park Soccer Fields, 2400 E. 7600 South, Cottonwood Heights. New player registration begins Aug. 1, $120/year. Meetup.com
Salt Lake County Adult Soccer: Age 16 and up, all abilities. Women's league Tuesdays, $240 fee. Coed league Wednesdays, $310 fee. $80 for 10 team T-shirts. All games at Murray Fields, 5201 S. Murray Park Lane (160 East). Registration opens July 1, closes Aug. 7. ActivityReg.com
Premier Club Soccer: Adults; teams organized by ability level, indoor and outdoor. New coed 6 vs. 6 season starts June 22. Other teams include women's 4 vs. 4 and women's 6 vs. 6. Provo. Email email@example.com
Utah Soccer Arena: Adult league, Latino/a league, and futsal. Single players can be matched with existing teams. Registration currently not open. Open play; first-come-first-served pick-up games, 5 vs. 5 and 6 vs. 6. 90-minute sessions. Thursdays, 8:30 p.m., $5. Murray Arena, 4284 S. 300 West. UtahSoccerArena.com