You may not realize it when you’re sucked into a nail-biter of a match (or merely ogling all of that . . . athleticism), but every time you tune to the World Cup this year in the U.S., you’re witnessing history. And said history has nothing to do with who is winning, losing, flopping, suffering injury, or banking red cards. That voice you hear calling the shots? That’s Aly Wagner, and she’s the first woman ever to announce men’s World Cup games for the tournament's U.S. broadcasts. And by most accounts (more on that later), she’s killing it.
When we first speak, she’s fresh off the Iceland-Nigeria match: a little exhilarated, and a lot spent. As a two-time Olympic gold medalist and two-time World Cup bronze winner herself, Wagner is no stranger to performing on a massive stage, but calling the World Cup for millions of viewers is enough to douse anyone in the flop sweat of performance anxiety. Add to that being the first woman ever to do so in the U.S., and it’s no wonder that Wagner says that actually playing in those high stakes games was, comparatively speaking, kind of a cakewalk.
“The gravity of calling World Cup matches is like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” she says. Initially, her reverence for the tournament and her soccer-first perspective overshadowed the whole glass ceiling thing, only for that part to sneak up and knock the wind out of her later: “I realized what a big deal it is for a woman to do this, and the huge responsibility that’s been placed on my shoulders.”
She tackled the challenge like the elite athlete she is, throwing herself into the prep as intensely as if she were lacing up to hit the field. But instead of physical conditioning and fine-tuning her mechanics, this preparation involved planting herself on the couch with her iPad. And notebooks. So many notebooks. Tasked with calling 10 games, she schooled herself on the basics and subtleties of 20 different teams—and each of those team’s 23 players. (Little did she know Fox would spring a last-minute schedule change on her, too.)
“There’s so much background you have to know to get into the specific match and break it down, provide context,” she explains. “It was insane, the hours. My poor family; since January, every moment I wasn’t doing something for the kids I was watching games and taking notes.”
From each kickoff, she must be acutely focused in order to catch the nuances of what’s happening on the field, dissect plays, reference patterns and stats, and then articulate it all in real time, coherently, injecting some flair—a little poetry, a little humor—while she’s at it.
And God help her if she pronounces a name wrong.
Football fans are notoriously fanatical; when you multiply that by the World Cup and take it to the power of Twitter, the snark quotient is colossal. And when Wagner mispronounced English midfielder Dele Alli’s last name as “Ollie,” instead of, well, the exact way her very own first name is pronounced (cringe), the Twitterverse was not kind.
Not that the dudebros of the Internet need such a reason to lob insults at a woman broadcaster; simply speaking in a woman’s voice is enough to roil the trolls. And should a woman use her voice in a way that demonstrates she knows a little more about the game than they do? Look out. “I knew to expect some backlash,” Wagner says, but “I know the game. I do my work and am very confident in my ability to break it down. Most of these [hecklers] play Sunday soccer, if that. . . . When you’ve played in two World Cups, you know how to deal with negative energy.”
Wagner has another arrow in her quiver: She’s a mom. To four kids. All under the age of 5. Three of them triplets. Anonymous internet haters do not scare her. “Being told you should reduce your pregnancy because your kids won’t be able to live a normal life and going into preterm labor at 28 weeks? That’s real,” she says. “Men who can’t learn or enjoy our broadcasts because of the sound of my voice? That’s actually funny.”
Such perspective (and steely nerves) are necessary when you’re obliterating professional barriers on the world’s biggest athletic stage while simultaneously parenting four toddlers. Hers is the standard working-mom juggle, only supersized. Oh, and she and her husband are currently remodeling their home in California’s Silicon Valley, too. (“Perfect timing,” she deadpans. “Like my brain has the space to pick finishes.”)
Her regular gig, broadcasting the National Women’s Soccer League’s Game of the Week for Lifetime, means she’s gone on weekends from March almost through October, and the World Cup has her MIA from family life for 35 days straight. “Just today my littlest was like, ‘Mommy, can I come see you?’ It eats your heart up, but it’s important for me to have something going on outside of the kids,” she says. “Plus, when they see mom out there doing her thing, they don’t think twice about the fact that I’m a woman in this field. I’ve never thought I wasn’t equal, and that’s how I raise my children.”
It’s sometimes easier said than done: Some of Wagner’s international colleagues have been subjected to hideous treatment. Argentinian reporter Veronica Brunati endured a “violent situation,” Colombian reporter Julieth Gonzalez was groped, Russian journalist Barbara Gerneza was harassed by a group of fans. Wagner’s response upon learning about these incidents was one of dismay: “ ‘Carry me, birth me, teach me, just don’t think you equal me’ is just tired,” she texted, adding that her hope is that shining a light on such violence will, ultimately, be a step toward ending it.
But she’s of the school who wants her cred to be the first thing you notice about her, everything else a side note. She knows she belongs, and while making history as a first is cool, cooler still will be when the firsts are history. “I hope after this tournament it’s not going to be a story anymore when women are calling big matches for men’s games,” she says. “It’s just going to be.”