In the end, most of the game itself felt like an afterthought: With America’s breakout player Carli Lloyd scoring a hat-trick in the first sixteen minutes, the nation’s victory in the Women’s World Cup final seemed assured. The U.S. team’s barnstorming 5-2 victory over Japan was sweet revenge for its loss to the same team in the 2011 final on penalties, as well as a showcase for Lloyd’s surgical scoring ability (from literally everywhere on the field). But just as admirably, the champions never lacked for dignity and grace, playing and celebrating with assured sportsmanship even as the Japanese team seemed to crumble under the early deficit.
The statesmanlike authority of the U.S. team perhaps underlines what has felt so unique about the 2015 Women’s World Cup, which attracted record viewing figures while inspiring hope that women’s soccer can endure domestically as a popular professional sport after the trophy-winning hoopla dies down. Carli Lloyd, who was named the player of the tournament and whose hat-trick was the first ever in a Women’s World Cup final, plays for the Houston Dash in the regular season, a team in the fledgling National Women’s Soccer League where salaries reportedly range from $6,800 a year to a maximum of $37,800. At 32 years old, she’s spent her whole career under similar circumstances, rising to captain her national team and help boost the sport’s popularity nationwide. She, like her teammates, was truly on the field for the love of the game.
This isn’t to discount the effort of other athletes who earn fair compensation from their own professional sports leagues, which are far wealthier from multi-year TV deals, hefty sponsorships, and the like. Even while soccer’s governing body, FIFA, reliably hits the headlines for the wrong reasons, the World Cup has always held a special appeal: Here are players taking the field for their country, not their paychecks. It’s worth noting that FIFA gives out $2 million in prize money to the winning team at the Women’s World Cup—but that number pales in comparison to the $35 million that goes to the winning men’s team, and the $27 million the organization spent making the film United Passions, a much-derided piece of propaganda about the organization’s history.
This is America’s first World Cup trophy since 1999, when the tournament was still in its infancy, and the star player Mia Hamm had no professional league to play for in the United States (she would help found the first two years later). This year, Lloyd cemented her status as the 2015 World Cup’s breakout star with those three goals, making the near-impossible look very easy, especially the effort that sealed her hat-trick and gave the U.S. a commanding 4-0 lead sixteen minutes in. Picking up the ball around the halfway line, she noticed the Japanese goalie had come off of her line and launched a shot; Ayumi Kaihori did what she could to get back, but it was too late. If the U.S. lead had felt dominant before, it was now almost insurmountable.
That early flurry of goals made for an otherwise perfunctory game; even the Japanese team scoring twice and bringing the score to 4-2 couldn’t raise a scare, and Tobin Heath sealed the game with the U.S.’s fifth goal in the 54th minute. This flurry of early scoring came in a tournament where the Americans had struggled to score early; indeed, that was what made the semi-final against Germany the most nail-biting match of the tournament. But one player opened the scoring there, in what really functioned as the de facto final in terms of pure skill on display: Carli Lloyd.
Lloyd wasn’t the only hero of the day. Goalkeeper Hope Solo, for all her personal struggles, capped her sterling work throughout the tournament with the Golden Glove award; Abby Wambach, for so long the figurehead of the American women’s team and now entering her twilight years, finally captured the trophy that had eluded her since she was first called up to the team in 2001. Her victory sealed, she ran to the stands to embrace her wife Sarah, which will stand as an indelible image of progress in sport, just like so much else.
But there’s still more progress to come. 2015 marks the first women’s tournament to feature 24 teams, and hopefully it can eventually expand to the 32 nations that play in the men’s World Cup every four years. The controversy over the artificial turf the women played on, a much shoddier and more dangerous surface than the natural grass featured in men’s soccer, helped underline the gender disparity that still exists, one that will hopefully be addressed by the time the 2019 tournament takes place in France. But with all that said, more than 53,000 fans watched Sunday night’s final unfold in Vancouver, while tens of millions more tuned in on Fox, proving that an audience for women’s soccer is very much alive for the sport in the future.