PARIS — The U.S. national team's 13-0 rout of Thailand did more than expose vast differences between two teams, it highlighted the overall inequality in the Women's World Cup field.
Players for the defending champion U.S. team enjoy things like nutritionists and massage therapists, access to top-level training facilities and play an array of exhibition games against world-class competition. Thailand struggles for the basics, even a large enough player pool to draw on for talent. They play a limited number of friendlies against quality opponents and players need jobs outside of soccer to make ends meet.
"There are some teams here that, since the last World Cup, have only played a handful of games, or only the qualifiers," U.S. star Megan Rapinoe said. "It's embarrassing for the federations and for FIFA as well."
So while well-supported teams like the U.S., France and England can legitimately say they're contending for a title, others without those nations' resources make do with moral victories.
Before the opening game with the U.S ., Thailand coach Nuengrutai Srathongvian suggested the team's real victory at the World Cup could be overall improvement in the women's program back home because of the attention.
"We are here among the 24 teams in the tournament, this is our success. And to play one of the best teams in the world, like the U.S., this is also our success," Srathongvian said.
A wealthy benefactor, Nualphan Lamsam, serves as general manager of the Thai team and helps players by giving them jobs at her insurance company.
In much the same way, World Cup newcomer Jamaica has depended on the support of Bob Marley's daughter, Cedella Marley, who has helped fund and promote the team through her late father's foundation.
The Reggae Girlz were defunded by the Jamaican federation after they failed to qualify for the 2007 World Cup and 2008 Olympics. Marley made it her personal cause to revive the team in 2014.
"This is not just about the World Cup, and I want to make sure people understand that. This is bigger than the World Cup," Jamaica coach Hue Menzies said. "We want to sustain our program. That's something we've talked about with our federation and our sponsors. This is a project that we took up to change the mindset about females playing football."
The disparity between teams made Argentina's scoreless draw with Japan in their group-stage opener Monday all the more encouraging. It resulted in the team's first-ever World Cup point.
But it was bigger than that for a team that fights for attention and resources in a soccer-crazed country: Two years ago the players went on strike because stipends went unpaid.
"We have started getting support now from the Argentinean football federation for the team. It's true that results help a lot, and this will definitely help and reinforce all the work," coach Carlos Borrello said. "It will help us to continue on the great path. We have to also strengthen the grassroots of our game."
FIFA, soccer's governing body, has been criticized for neglecting the women's game, and some member federations have not used FIFA funds for their women's programs, preferring instead to funnel money to developing young male players.
FIFA has begun to address the issue with its Global Women's Football Strategy, which seeks to double participation in the sport. One goal is to put more women in positions of power both within FIFA and it member federations. It also requires federations to create plans to develop the women's game.
But the strategy doesn't require countries to use a dedicated percentage of their FIFA funding on women.
Chile, which like Jamaica is also making its first World Cup appearance, essentially fell out of the world rankings altogether in 2016 because the team didn't play any meaningful games. After a 2-0 loss to Sweden in its World Cup opener, Chile plays the U.S. in Paris on Sunday.
The Americans are coming off the record-breaking victory over Thailand. Critics jumped on the U.S. for running up the score and celebrating late goals when the game had already been decided. It was the most goals ever scored in a World Cup, as well as the biggest margin of victory. Alex Morgan's five goals tied a tournament record.
For the United States, the World Cup comes at a time that the team has its own, albeit completely different, battle back home.
The players filed a lawsuit earlier this year that alleges discrimination by the U.S. Soccer Federation. They are seeking pay equitable with that of the men's national team. The case is in the early stages in the court system, and the players say they have put it out of their minds for now.
The fight in France is on the field.
"For right now this is our focus, this is our sole focus," Morgan said. "This team is united in a way I have never seen before."
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