Much has been written of late about women’s football, including both praise and criticism of the recent World Cup performances, discussion of pay discrepancies between male and female players, and, in a few cases, a circling of the male wagons around the sport against a perceived female attack. These have all highlighted the fact that the game still has a long way to go in terms of its development, financial support and attitudes towards it.
The standard of the football played at the recent Women’s World Cup in Canada has faced criticism from some journalists, derided for being an inferior rendering of the men’s game. In one such appraisal, Gordon Parks of the Scottish Daily Record stated that:
“Having watched countless matches from the Canadian borefest it’s only confirmed a mediocre version of the male game is being given a profile way beyond what it deserves.”
He described it as, “a joyless affair, devoid of flair. The ball distribution was shocking and the patronising commentary failed miserably to dress it all up into something it wasn’t”. Parks’ final criticism was of the international women players’ “inability to rise above an amateur standard of football”. This is criticism indeed from someone tasked with regularly mustering praise for Scottish professional football (a nation whose team hasn’t qualified for the men’s World Cup since 1998).
What has to be remembered is that, compared to the male professional game, women’s football is still in its infancy. The majority of the 522 players at the Women’s World Cup still hold down other jobs and many come from countries which have no, or limited, domestic leagues. As a result most of the women players spend a lot less time on the ball and also do not have the same support networks of physical trainers, fitness advisors and medical teams enjoyed by male professionals. And while youth football for girls is on the rise, opportunities for young girls to become involved in the game are still fewer than those available to boys.
Some of the criticisms of the female game also fall back on the belief that there is a mysterious feminine essence and inherent physical differences between the sexes that mean women are just not as fit, strong and skilled as men. Back in 1980, Iris Marion Young tried to explode this myth in Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment, Motility and Spatiality. Young suggested differences in male and female physicality are not inborn but result from social conditioning surrounding the expectation that girls should be “feminine” in how they use their bodies, influencing everything from how they sit to how they move. Part of this conditioning is that girls are generally encouraged to see themselves as fragile and be more self-conscious and protective of their bodies. The fear generated by these expectations, both of physical harm and of appearing “masculine”, results in women tending not to take full advantage of their bodies’ spatial possibilities. Young concludes that:
“Typically, the feminine body underuses its real capacity, both as the potentiality of its physical size and strength and as the real skills and coordination that are available to it.”
However, 35 years on, attitudes persist that gender differences are wholly inborn rather than being influenced by the roles assigned by society. Many of the recent Twitter and Youtube comments on EA Games’ announcement that FIFA 16 would feature female players towed the party line that women just aren’t as good at sports as men because they are physically weaker. Such comments were accompanied by countless ‘jokes’ about parking abilities, kitchen responsibilities, menstruation and maternity leave, together with the suggestion that women should just leave football, and computer gaming, to the men.
Besides these hackneyed, misogynistic remarks, FIFA and the English FA themselves have been guilty of making blatantly sexist comments in their presentation of women’s football. The FA caused a social media storm by welcoming their bronze medal-winning team home from Canada with the Tweet:
“Our #Lionesses go back to being mothers, partners and daughters today, but they have taken on another title – heroes”
Meanwhile, on FIFA’s own website, hugely successful US striker Alex Morgan, a member of the World Cup winning team, is described as, “a talented goalscorer with a style that is very easy on the eye and good looks to match”. Such sentiments relegate female sport either to the status of a hobby from which the women return to their “real” and important roles in society, or to another opportunity for women to be objectified.
FIFA have had to deal with some highly-publicised scandals recently, most obviously the investigation into financial corruption and, to a lesser degree, the terrible mistreatment, and resulting fatalities, of migrant workers currently building the stadiums in Qatar for World Cup 2022. Receiving slightly less attention, at the end of last year, was the threatened legal action against FIFA by many of the top women players. The complainants were arguing that the playing of the Women’s World Cup on artificial surfaces rather than grass was a case of sexual discrimination, as this has never even been considered for the male competition. However, the case was finally dropped, amid allegations that individual associations had threatened some of the players involved with non-selection for the competition if they failed to do so.
There is no lack of material with which to criticise and demonise FIFA’s Sep Blatter, but a comment he made 10 years ago has resurfaced recently and faced renewed ridicule. He suggested that the profile of women’s football could be raised if they, “let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts”. Aside from the obvious objectification of women that this comment encourages, the other main problem with it is the assumption that for women’s football to be a commercial success, it has to appeal to a heterosexual male audience. The future of women’s football could be strengthened merely by encouraging more women to watch (they do make up more than half of the population after all). The recent World Cup has certainly raised the game’s profile and the audience figures were not paltry: 7 of the matches were played in front of a crowd of over 50,000 and the total attendance in Canada was over 1.3million; the US television audience for the final against Japan was 25.4 million, the highest ever for the sport, male or female, in that country; another 11.6 million watched the same match in Japan. While these audiences may still be a tiny fraction of the statistics for the men’s World Cup, they are not insignificant and are growing. Affording the sport a higher profile will encourage sponsorship and television deals, allowing it to grow further.
However, as examined in Pay Disparity: Not Just Hollywood’s Problem, a sustained female audience would probably still not be the end of the story. Women currently make up over 50% of the cinema audience but they still only account for around 30% of the movie roles, 15% of the leads and 7% of the directors. This exposes that, even when franchises such as The Hunger Games are proving that female driven stories can also be box-office heavyweights, there remain deep-seated attitudes and prejudices in the industry which have not yet been overcome. The recent criticism and commentary surrounding women’s football only highlight that, regardless of growing interest in the game, these same attitudes will still have to be surmounted.