A long, fun trip: How an old man was reborn through women’s football

A rainbow takes shape above Lynn Family Stadium.
A rainbow takes shape above Lynn Family Stadium during a match between Racing Louisville FC and the Orlando Pride on 10 April 2021 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Her Football Hub senior editor (and self-proclaimed old man) Rick Pytlik reflects on how he gravitated to women’s football. Read how the sport has evolved over the last 30 years through the lens of a casual viewer turned diehard fan.

I went to my first women’s soccer game 34 years ago. Back then, to me, it wasn’t called football. It wasn’t called a match. And, most importantly, you didn’t brag that you went to a soccer game.

I wasn’t going because I chose to go. In fact, I was going because I was covering the game for my college newspaper. (Shout-out to The University at Buffalo’s Spectrum.) Not that I was against it, but I wouldn’t have gone off my own accord.

Football, not American football

I’m a Yank by birth. Growing up in the States, you’re taught sports from the moment you’re born. Not necessarily as an athlete, but the whole culture of sports. And you’re directed toward America’s ‘Big 4’. That’s baseball, basketball, hockey (to a smaller extent), and, the end-all be-all of American society, football.

Not real football, or at least not the kind you think of when visiting this website. I’m talking American football. It dominates life over here. And, I happen to live in a town that is home to a professional football team.

Let’s Go Buffalo!

The Buffalo Bills is an American football team that dominates the sporting scene in the area where I grew up. During university, if anyone was talking about football, they were talking about the Buffalo Bills. They certainly weren’t talking about the UB Royals, who I was sent to cover for the newspaper.

Al Edwards of the Buffalo Bills runs the ball down field.
Al Edwards of the Buffalo Bills runs the ball during an AFC East game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on 8 September 1991 at Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Allsport/Getty Images)

So, I went, covered the game, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I love sports, and watching any sport played by people far more talented than I could ever be is a treat.

After the match, I wrote my article, did a decent job, and was put on the women’s sports beat from there on. It was a really good time because I met some wonderful people, and it really opened my eyes to some of the many struggles that women face in both sport and society.

After I finished college in 1991, I quickly forgot about soccer. The first Women’s World Cup happened that summer, and I had no idea about it. I saw that the US had won it, and did a little “USA! USA!” cheer for five seconds. But from there, soccer was gone again.

The first taste

Then, 1999 came. It was the awakening of America to the glory that is women’s football. Now, I still called it soccer but, I caught the buzz that was going around, and was excited to watch the games. I learned who Mia Hamm, Brianna Scurry, and Kristine Lilly were. I started to learn a bit more about how the beautiful game is played.

Mia Hamm embraces Team USA teammates.
Team USA celebrates victory over Team China in the final match of the FIFA Women’s World Cup at the Rose Bowl on 10 July 1999 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

At the same time, I also watched a few games with other countries. I saw this incredible woman from China, Sun Wen. She was amazing. I started to get the bug. I wanted to see more games.

While my enthusiasm grew, soccer began to dominate the US sports scene, and I was excited to see people cheering for women’s sports.

And then, that legendary final. I will forever have that image of Brandi Chastain screaming like a berserker after scoring the Cup winner in the shoot-out. I couldn’t wait until the next World Cup to see more soccer. Man, I wish I knew then that I didn’t have to.

Seeing stars

2003 comes, and the World Cup is coming back to the States. Better yet, some of the games are in Ohio. That’s only a five-hour drive from Buffalo.

That’s when it really started, when I got to see a true, bonafide superstar — one Birgit Prinz. I was in awe. She was so smart on the field, and always seemed to be where she could score at any time. Germany waltzed through to the semi-finals, matching up against my country’s team.

I cheered for both sides. I didn’t care who won, I just loved watching the game. As I watched Germany steam-roll the US at Slick Willie’s, I was cheering.

I said to my friend Steve, “That was the best football game I’ve ever seen!” He looked at me curiously.

“Don’t you mean soccer?”

“Nope. I mean football. That’s real football. What we play here is American rules football, and it can’t compare.”

Birgit Prinz of Germany dribbles the ball down field.
Birgit Prinz of Germany dribbles the ball against Sweden during the FIFA Women’s World Cup Final on 12 October 2003 at Home Depot Center in Carson, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

A lazy fan, to say the least

After the 2003 World Cup ended, I didn’t really have access to women’s football. I didn’t know about any leagues, and there was nothing close to me. I forgot about football for another four years.

But when the Women’s World Cup returned in 2007, so did I, again. I saw my new hero, Birgit Prinz, dominate again. I also watched in amazement as Germany didn’t concede a goal for the entire tournament. Are you kidding me? As a youngster, I played keeper for a while, and I am proudly GK Union for life. Nadine Angerer, you ROCK.

So, I finally started to watch more on television, but didn’t realize that with a little bit of effort I could have found matches to watch live. I was able to see some more of the international teams. Occasionally, I even saw Women’s Premier League matches on BBC television.

I was enjoying it, getting to know some of the players, and becoming more knowledgeable about the game as a whole. I looked forward to the next World Cup so I could once again witness world-class football.

Can 2011 be the year?

That legendary tournament of 2011. There were so many memorable moments.

There was Marta’s over-the-back goal to take the lead, only for maybe the greatest goal in WWC history by Abby Wambach to tie the match in the dying seconds.

I remember the Japan squad, carrying their whole nation’s hopes, and coming back in extra time to force penalty kicks against the US. I had chills when Japan won, and man, I was counting the days until the next World Cup as soon as the closing ceremonies finished.

Japan women's national football team celebrates winning the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup.
Japan celebrates after winning the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final against the US on 17 July 2011 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. (Photo by Thorsten Wagner/Getty Images)

Alas, I again fell into my half-hearted fandom. I was excited for more football, but not willing to commit the energy to it. I had gotten old along the way. As the 2015 World Cup approached, I was approaching my 46th birthday. Age is just the number, old is the feeling. And I knew that I was becoming an old man.

Not long after that World Cup, the Western New York Flash left for North Carolina. And I didn’t even know there was a team in my own backyard. Fast forward to 2019 when I have fallen in love with women’s football, and I’m hitting myself in the head with anger because I was unaware of the Flash.

I yelled: “You could have seen Sam Kerr, Marta, Abby Wambach, Christine Sinclair, and Sam Mewis live! What is wrong with you?!”

Big changes

The next thing I knew, World Cup 2019 is approaching. I’m super excited, because I have been watching the USWNT, and they have been tearing it up. And, I’m seeing women in both football and society becoming more powerful, more visible, more important.

I’m watching women stand for a world that they are equal partners in, and I am so proud that I can witness this. Nadia Nadim, Hedvig Lindahl, Megan Rapinoe, Ada Hegerberg, and so many others — thank you.

Thank you for using your platform to help change the world. Perhaps the world can shift to become a place where we all are considered equal, valid, important, and special for who we are.

For me, the 2019 World Cup was even more important because it finally happened.

I had already watched the group stages, the quarters, and the first semi-final. The US won a thrilling match over England. I was enthusiastically cheering both sides. (I still don’t think Ellen White was offside).

But then, the next semi came around — Sweden vs Netherlands.

I started to cheer for The Netherlands, not knowing anything about them. Orange is one of my favourite colours, I saw some videos of them being goofballs, and I liked their style of play. On the other side, I was already a fan of Sweden’s Lindahl because I am GK Union for life, and she’s amongst the best ever. I’m so psyched for this matchup.

The lightning bolt

The lightning bolt finally hits me in the 99th minute of Sweden vs Netherlands. This match had me on the edge of my seat from the opening whistle. Both sides could have scored multiple times, Sari van Veenendaal is super-human, and I can’t count how many crossbars and posts are hit.

We go to extra time, and I hear the metaphorical thunder start to rumble. A simple triangle passing play works to perfection — Jackie Groenen is in on Lindahl, and she makes no mistake.

It was Groenen’s celebration that did it for me. This girl looked like she was so full of happy that she didn’t know what to do with herself. Finally, she screamed in joy with her teammates. Then, the final whistle blew and Merel van Dongen raises her arms, exhausted, with that “Did what I think just happened actually happen?” look. I was fully hooked.

In that moment, I felt younger. I had found a new, fun purpose, and I couldn’t wait to get further into football. The Oranje Leeuwinnen had become my new team, and I cheered my head off for them in that final.

Jackie Groenen of the Netherlands celebrates her goal with teammate Shanice van de Sanden.
Jackie Groenen of the Netherlands celebrates with teammate Shanice van de Sanden after scoring against Sweden during the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup on 3 July 2019 in Lyon, France. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Finally home

I knew I wasn’t going to let football go again. The tournament ended, and I started buying kits. I found out where I could watch matches. A road trip to Chicago to see the Red Stars play the Thorns. I have become a raving Gooner.

In a digital world, I have gotten involved in women’s football groups online, and follow as many teams, organisations, players, and leagues as I can. I have become an owner of Lewes FC — up the Rooks!

Teenage excitement hits me when someone in the game responds to me.

I also made a huge decision, and decided for the first time to take a trip to Europe to see the Women’s Euros. There is a better-than-excellent chance that I will never go home.

And then, I had the good fortune to see a post that a group called Her Football Hub was looking for writers and editors. What a way to get more involved with the game, I thought. After getting in touch with them, I am happily part of the editorial team, as well as the old man of the group. I love learning about the game from them.

I think back sometimes about my dearth of knowledge concerning football when I was young. Now, I know what a false nine is. I know who’s on top of the table in the Frauen-Bundesliga. And I know where to find the TV listings for most of the matches taking place worldwide, so I can watch football all day and all night.

Opening weekend 2021

I now live for football Sundays. I had to work on the WSL’s opening day, but I’ll be damned if I was going to miss Arsenal vs Chelsea. So, I very diligently cleaned the lobby for two hours while the game just coincidentally played on the TV.

I’m not a very quiet or reserved fan when watching, and this match was a barn-burner, so I was rather loud and animated. After having the better of the match for the first 60 minutes, Arsenal went into a defensive shell while up 3-1. Predictably, they give up a goal, and the Blues are pressing the whole way until the final whistle. My Gunners held on for the nail-biting win, and I happily returned to work.

About ten minutes after the match, I am walking down the hallway, and I pass one of our guests. He says to me, “Can I ask you a question?”

“Of course, sir! What is it?”

He leans in closer and whispers with a smile: “So, did anyone ever f***ing cover Pernille Harder?”

I look at him with a sheepish smile, and then we both start laughing.

Arsenal celebrate after scoring.
Arsenal celebrate after scoring against Chelsea during the Barclays FA Women’s Super League match at the Emirates Stadium, London on 5 September 2021. (Photo by MI News)

He’s not old anymore, just aged

So, I have plunged headlong into football fandom. I attended a match of the NWSL playoffs — a seven hour drive that was worth every moment. My TV and internet bill has skyrocketed, but I don’t miss matches when I’m home. (And, obviously, when I’m at work, either).

I now look up on the walls of my living room and happily survey my treasure trove.

Front wall: Lucy Bronze’s England kit, Jackie Groenen’s Netherlands kit, Louise Quinn’s Arsenal kit, Jen Beattie’s Hero Arsenal kit.

Back wall: Dszenifer Maroszan’s Germany kit, Tessa Wullaert’s Belgium kit, Amandine Henry’s France kit, Tobin Heath’s Arsenal kit. I will do everything I can to get them all signed this summer.

But the thing I am looking forward to most? Meeting my wonderful friends from Her Football Hub. First round at Old Trafford is on me!

Thank you, football, and the wonderful people that have made it such a joy for me. You’ve made an old man young again.