In the last five years, I’ve gotten into soccer. Around the same time period, women’s professional soccer has grown in leaps and bounds, garnering well-deserved attention for the success of the women’s team in the Olympics, the Women’s World Cup, and the fight for pay equality. A few years ago, I read Carli Lloyd’s 2016 memoir, When Nobody Was Watching. She played on the same teams as Abby Wambach, whose 2016 memoir, Forward, takes a different approach to the same subject: what is it like to be a professional female soccer player when such a thing didn’t exist that long ago?
While Lloyd’s book focused largely on soccer itself, even giving a play-by-play of the more important games, Wambach looks at her identity. Each chapter title is a label she would give herself, such as “rebel,” “teammate,” “lesbian,” “depressive,” and “captain.” The story begins with little Abby, who excels at soccer but doesn’t love it. She’s convinced by a sibling to keep playing. In high school, Wambach struggles with her sexual identity, which she hides from her parents until she goes to college.
Wambach is wildly undisciplined compared to Lloyd’s painfully perfect image (always fit, a long-term boyfriend who becomes her husband, incredibly kind). Wambach eats junk food and drinks too much, falls into and out of shape, goes through multiple relationships in which she thinks she’s in love and buys outrageous gifts to prove it. Instead of describing each pep talk, pass, and goal, Wambach explores her desire to be loved. For instance, she admits she doesn’t love soccer, but the “validation that comes from mastering it.” Wambach explains, “For thirty years scoring goals was my currency, the one skill I could barter for security and acceptance and love.” In fact, Wambach has scored more professional soccer goals — 184 — than any other human. It’s that ability to assess her own motivations that steps Forward up beyond other sports memoirs I’ve read.
Best of all, Wambach looks at her world through a feminist lens. When she overhears a mother in a restaurant tell her seven- or eight-year-old daughter “You need to find a good man to have a good life, just like I found your father,” Wambach can’t help but seethe:
The words stir a fury inside of me. I think about where I am: twenty-four years old, just a few steps away from being a powerful, self-sufficient woman, someone who never considered relying on a man or anyone else for my well-being and success, someone with an Olympic gold medal. . .
But the athlete doesn’t just get mad, she is an advocate making a case for equal pay for women’s soccer players. She compares wages — on average, women on “the National Women’s Soccer team earn between $6,842 and $37,800 while members of Major League Soccer earn an average salary exceeding $200,000 [despite the fact that the women’s] World Cup final against Japan attracted 750 million viewers worldwide and was the most watched soccer match in U.S. history.” For comparison that’s more viewers than “the 2015 NBA championship featuring Stephen Curry and LeBron James.” I’m quoting numbers at you in the hopes that you will advocate for women’s soccer, wherever you live, and keep in mind that the gender pay gap happens in all professions. Wambach and Lloyd both successfully bring attention to the pay discrepancy in their memoirs and educate readers.
One thing I couldn’t get over, though, was how much Wambach loved her former team owner, Dan Borislow, who asked players about their sex lives and told them to call him Daddy. But, he’s kept the team in business and increased their wages in support of their fight for pay equality. When he died, Wambach was greatly saddened, and even thanks him in the acknowledgements. Since I’m now asking what each book I read says about women, I wonder if Wambach accidentally gives evidence that women tolerate and even admire men who are pigs because that man offers kindness, too. Sometimes, we’re thankful for crumbs.
Although the message is clear, Wambach typically writes in slogans you might find high school students touting about reaching for the stars, being a team player, and asking for help when you need it. The writing, in this case, is not unique but does make for a quick read. Lloyd’s book suffered from the same issue, which reminds me that not all famous people are good writers. Even Joan Fontaine fell on her face in her autobiography, coming off as shallow and flighty.
In general, the Wambach is honest about her personal flaws, including alcohol and pill dependency and being a needy partner in a relationship, but she also expresses genuine gratitude for each person she meets, avoiding gossip or demeaning other women, and draws attention to women’s and LGBTQ rights.