Leveling the pitch: Women’s football in a sexist world
Football was crafted by men, exclusively for men, and the football community still clings to this outdated mindset.
Over the past decade, women’s football has experienced a significant surge in support, yet much work remains to be accomplished.
Despite promises from governing bodies to elevate the women’s side, issues persist, including controversial coaching staff, subpar playing conditions and a lack of support from the federations. Archaic perceptions continue regarding women in sports unless it involves revealing uniforms designed to cater to the male gaze.
Women’s football formed its first professional team just a decade after the men’s, in 1895. Honeyball, whose true identity remains in mystery, established the pioneering British Ladies Football Club to debunk the notion that women were merely decorative and ineffectual.
During their brief spell in the limelight, the British Ladies Football Club attracted thousands of enthusiastic fans. However, their audacity to engage in a “man’s game” stirred substantial criticism and incited violence. This hostile environment forced women to put their dreams on hold.
It wasn’t until World War I – when men were away at war – that women rekindled their involvement in the sport.
Paralleling their male counterparts, women’s matches drew enormous crowds of up to 53,000 spectators. Men, evidently disgruntled that women could command the same level of attention and deliver successful entertainment, imposed a ban on women’s football as a whole.
Fifty years passed before women regained the opportunity to compete, perpetuating the unfounded belief that they lacked the skill and knowledge required for the sport.
Before FIFA reluctantly ’embraced’ women’s football, the Federazione Internazionale Europea Football Femminile (FIEFF) took the initiative to host their unofficial 1971 World Cup in Italy, a mere year after the men’s World Cup in 1970.
Despite its unofficial status, these games pulled in astounding crowds, with the final match alone amassing over 110,000 ticket sales – a testament to women’s football’s undeniable appeal.
It would be another 28 years before the Women’s World Cup captured FIFA’s attention. Finally, FIFA organized a Women’s World Cup. Hesitating on its success, they dubbed it the “FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup.”
This tournament bore witness to one of sports’ most iconic moments as Brandi Chastain of the U.S. Women’s National Team clinched victory with a decisive penalty kick in the finals against China.
Subsequently, women’s football continued to progress but encountered various setbacks.
The 2023 FIFA World Cup in Australia and New Zealand shattered previous attendance records, attracting nearly two million fans, surpassing the previous record by more than 600,000.
The momentum of support persists as Arsenal has enjoyed sold-out crowds at the Emirates, solidifying its status as arguably the most widely followed women’s football team in the Women’s Super League (WSL).
However, even with the increase in attendance, the struggle for equal pay and respect endures in women’s football worldwide.
The Literal Grass Roots
The playing and training conditions meticulously maintained for men, ensuring low injury risks and premium treatment, stand in stark contrast to what women receive.
Most WSL teams find themselves relegated to youth development training facilities or even less favorable locations. Only recently have a few been granted access to their respective men’s stadiums, and that privilege is contingent on the men’s schedule and other events.
Regrettably, this season, five out of the 12 WSL teams still do not have access to their main club stadiums, even when their men’s counterparts are away.
During the recent men’s international break, Arsenal was the sole exception, securing the opportunity to play at the club’s primary stadium in front of another sold-out crowd.
Arsenal remains the sole team that enjoys some consistency in playing at their main stadium, albeit only when it conveniently aligns with the men’s schedule. Notably, the last weekend in October features both Arsenal men’s and women’s teams playing at home. Unfortunately, the women’s team gets bumped to their secondary field.
Although this issue might not initially appear significant, it has dire consequences within women’s football, adding to the extensive roster of female footballers sidelined for the season due to injuries.
Furthermore, this situation conveys a troubling message: women’s football is treated as an afterthought, only to be valued when men’s matches are not in progress.
The Gapping Gap
Although there has been some progress in addressing the pay gap, it remains far from resolved. This issue extends beyond football but is acutely evident in the financial disparities present in women’s football.
In 2019, the average Premier League player earned approximately £3 million per year, encompassing individuals like Michael Keane, Christian Benteke, and Nicolas Otamendi.
In stark contrast, the highest-paid female footballer globally, Chelsea’s Australian sensation Sam Kerr, commands an annual income of £3.3 million, with the majority originating from endorsements rather than her £1.76 million Chelsea contract.
Some WSL players receive as little as £20,000, with the average income hovering around £47,000.
The 2023 FIFA World Cup highlighted a glaring disparity, with players at the 2023 Women’s World Cup expected to earn just 25 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts at their World Cup the previous year, as per a recent CNN analysis. This marks an improvement from the prior figure of just under eight cents per dollar in 2019.
Even when it comes to prize money, concerns persist.
The Women’s World Cup saw a substantial increase to $150 million, a remarkable 300% rise from 2019. However, this amount is only about a third of the $440 million allocated to the men’s World Cup in Qatar in 2022.
The glaring disparity in financial investment between women’s and men’s football is astounding.
To put this into perspective, Manchester United established a women’s team just six years ago, around the same time the WSL was finally awarded the professional status they deserved in the first place before the 2018/19 season.
Astonishingly, the creation of this women’s team cost just £5 million – a sum equal to the club’s outlay for the basic salaries of Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez in two months.
Men’s football unquestionably serves as the prevailing norm, as evident in the standard references like “Arsenal Women’s team,” “England Women’s team,” or “FIFA Women’s World Cup.” Rarely is the term “Men’s” used to preface any male team or tournament, highlighting a significant linguistic and cultural bias.
Even in simple online searches, the men’s teams dominate the results. For instance, when you search for “Chelsea,” the first results typically pertain to the men’s team rather than the women’s, not giving you the option to choose.
This issue has only recently begun to attract attention, with limited changes implemented. Spain is the exception, having merged the names of both their teams into “Spain National Football Team” – probably the only good thing Spain’s federation has done recently.
Women in football consistently find themselves relegated to an afterthought, which is glaringly evident in publications. Only recently have a few outlets begun to organize their content as “men’s” and “women’s” rather than the typical “football,” with a subsection for “women’s” football.
This systemic problem perpetuates the dominance of men’s football rather than fostering an environment where both can coexist on equal footing.
The Upcoming World Cups
A recent announcement revealed that the Men’s 2030 FIFA World Cup will unfold across six countries, spanning three continents. Discussions regarding the host for the 2034 FIFA World Cup have also commenced.
FIFA excels in forward-thinking and long-term planning but predominantly focuses on men’s events. The next FIFA Women’s World Cup still lacks a designated host nation, leaving a mere four years to develop and execute a comprehensive plan, let alone planning for ten years from now.
Alarmingly, the next Women’s World Cup host decision isn’t anticipated until May of the following year. This discrepancy underscores the stark disparity in the attention and resources allocated to the men’s and women’s events within FIFA.
The coaching standards in women’s football, it appears, have made the least amount of progress over the years. Because of this, it comes as no surprise that individuals like Jorge Vilda continue to be a part of women’s football, even with his involvement in active sexual assault and coercion cases.
Allegations of abuse, often sexual, have affected national teams worldwide in recent years, including reported cases in Haiti, Venezuela, Zambia, Argentina, Colombia, Afghanistan and most recently, Spain.
Despite these troubling reports, FIFA has not hesitated to permit these coaches – whose teams qualified – to take part in the World Cup.
In the United States, it was revealed at the beginning of the year that four former NWSL coaches were banned permanently following an abuse investigation.
Even after the successes achieved by coaches like Serina Weigman, one might expect FIFA to prioritize player safety and consider hiring more female coaches. Instead, they appear inclined to transfer Weigman to the men’s side, seemingly motivated by the preconceived notion that successful coaches are more fitting for the men’s teams, perpetuating an unfortunate disregard for the women’s side.
Women’s football has clearly come a long way, with more people enjoying the sport, more women participating, and an overall improvement in the quality of the game. These positive changes highlight the dedication and talent of female athletes and indicate a shift in how society views women’s football.
However, despite these advancements, women’s football still faces significant challenges. Addressing these disparities isn’t just about fairness in pay but also about recognizing the value female athletes bring.
Women’s football has been overlooked and not given the attention it deserves for too long. The language we use, the way the media portrays the sport and the perception of women’s football all need to change so that female players get the recognition they’ve earned, just like their male counterparts.
Instead of separating and prioritizing based on gender, we should create an environment where talent and dedication are valued above all else.