The Women’s World Cup is the key to kicking sexism out of football

By Tom Davidson

We play for a nation that doesn’t even know our names’. This was the resounding opening line of Germany’s squad announcement video for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France. After years of being sneered at and shunned by followers of the men’s game, this summer the women will take centre stage. ‘We don’t have balls, but we know how to use them’, the video continues, planting a well-delivered blow to the sexual discrimination that still lingers in the sport. 

For many, knowledge of women’s football doesn’t stretch far beyond Kiera Knightley’s performance in Bend It Like Beckham or the occasional women’s friendly match on FIFA 16. Of course, in comparison to the men’s game, women’s football is fairly fresh in the UK. Whilst men’s football continued to develop throughout the 20th century, women’s teams suffered a 50-year ban enforced by the FA which saw them refused access to grounds for matches. In 1971 the ban was lifted, but they’d have to wait another two decades for the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991.

Nowadays, however, more and more female footballers are rising to stardom

Nowadays, however, more and more female footballers are rising to stardom. Take Ada Hegerberg, the winner of the first Ballon d’Or Féminin and scorer of a 16-minute hat-trick in last month’s Champions League final. Hegerberg’s historic award last December was infamously marred when DJ Martin Solveig asked her if she knew how to ‘twerk’. Hegerberg met the invitation with a composed tut and an unyielding ‘no’, testament to her professionalism. Needless to say, Luka Modrić, the male winner of the award, was not asked to flaunt his derrière on stage.

Indifference towards Hegerberg’s feat didn’t stop there. Later that night, Antoine Griezmann, visibly disappointed after missing out on the men’s prize, sent his congratulations to Modrić and ‘that girl from Lyon’. That girl who, just last month, netted three goals to ensure her team’s fourth consecutive Champions League triumph. That girl who, in Griezmann’s native France, has led Lyon to five successive league titles. That girl who, in the name of gender equality, refuses to represent Norway at international level in protest at a lack of respect for women’s players in the country.

If we don’t push for the change for women’s football to go in the right direction then it won’t come by itself,’ Hegerberg recently told the BBC. For the Lyon striker, it’s not a matter of money, but rather attitude and respect. ‘If you can change attitudes in the beginning, things will change. The men in suits can’t ignore that. They are going to understand one day. They are going to understand that this is about society and it’s about modern football,’ she added.

For many, improved investment can only be justified with increased interest in the women’s game

Whilst the lack of exposure suffered by the women’s game has been primarily due to structural failings, it’s not just the men in suits who need to change. Alex Scott, the first female pundit to represent the BBC at a men’s World Cup, has spoken openly about the rape and acid attack threats she’s received online. In February, Iranian state TV cancelled their coverage of a Bayern Munich game after catching wind that female referee Bibiana Steinhaus would be officiating. Additionally, prominent figures in the men’s game have been hostile to women, with former Manchester United boss David Moyes telling journalist Vicky Sparks to ‘watch herself’ because she ‘still might get a slap even though she’s a woman’.

As viewing figures rise, structural improvements are a must. Ticket sales for the 2019 Women’s World Cup continue to break records, passing the 720,000 mark in April. Yet, the disparity is still glaring. Although reliable information of players’ salaries is hard to come by, we can compare the prize pots for major tournaments as a measure of economic support for the game. Qualifying, group stage, and knockout bonuses aside, the winners of the men’s Champions League final can expect to take home €19million. For the women, UEFA write a cheque of €250,000. 76 times less.

Women’s football should not be viewed as a subgenre of the men’s game, but rather a sport in its own right, worthy of its own attention

As for the World Cup, the gap is beginning to be bridged. The winners of this year’s women’s tournament will claim $4million, double what the USA earned for their triumph in 2015. Double, but only a fraction of the $38million France’s men brought home from Russia last year. For many, improved investment can only be justified with increased interest in the women’s game. That’s why, for all football fans across the globe, now is the time to watch.

For the game to evolve, attitudes towards it must first evolve. Women’s football should not be viewed as a subgenre of the men’s game, but rather a sport in its own right, worthy of its own attention. As this summer’s Women’s World Cup will show, quality on the pitch is not lacking. It’s the inequality that exists beyond the white lines that is holding the game back.

Illustration by Anna Thomas.

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