The 2019 Women’s World Cup has been the best promoted and most watched in the tournament’s history.
The mainstream media is affording the current iteration of FIFA’s flagship competition for female footballers more coverage than ever before and after decades in the shadows, the women’s game is finally getting some much-deserved time in the spotlight.
Cue the backlash.
Social media has been rife with male commenters belittling the standard of play and unflattering videos highlighting isolated errors have gone viral. Predictably, low-level banter involving kitchens and sandwich-making has been thrown in for good, misogynistic measure.
If people genuinely don’t enjoy watching women’s football, that’s fair enough. There’s no denying that it’s different to the men’s game but I suppose it’s worth noting at this point that women and men are not biologically identical. Athletically speaking, men tend to be larger and more powerful.
It should, therefore, stand to reason that mocking women’s soccer for not being as quick as men’s soccer is akin to mocking Shelly-Ann Fraser-Price for not being as fast as Usain Bolt, or mocking Katie Taylor for not being as strong as Tyson Fury.
I find it a bit rich that men here in Ireland are willing to take time out of their day to sit down and watch Ireland v Gibraltar, a game that is without any shadow of a doubt absolutely guaranteed to be complete and utter tripe, yet flat out refuse to watch a top-level fixture between two good teams on the basis that “women’s soccer is shite”. And make no mistake, there most certainly are good teams at the Women’s World Cup.
As for guys singling out the individual mistakes that are being made by female players in France, it’s clear that many are using these clips to reinforce their own preconceived notions about women in sport in general. If a top male player made the same kind of mistake, would it get highlighted in the same way?
If Romelu Lukaku tries to do a step-over, stands on the ball and suddenly becomes inverted in comical fashion, men take the piss out of Romelu Lukaku. If a woman does the same thing, some of the same men take the piss out of women as a gender.
The funny thing is, if you dropped a lot of the most vocal critics of the women’s game into a training session with the US women’s team, they’d be found out in the very first rondo.
Goalkeeping errors also seem to be a source of great amusement to some observers. While it’s true that there has been some dodgy keeping in the Women’s World Cup, it’s also true that there are erratic keepers in every major men’s tournament as well. Again, their errors are taken to be a sign that the goalkeeper in question is a bit rubbish, not that every goalkeeper on the planet with same amount of chromosomes is a bit rubbish.
Ever the champions of the downtrodden and less fortunate, FIFA insist on bringing countries from every corner of the globe to the game’s biggest stage. The women’s tournament expanded from 16 to 24 in 2015 and if the powers that be have their way, the men’s competition will have 128 teams by the 2042 World Cup, which will presumably be staged on Deimos, the smaller of Mars’ two moons.
This exercise in inclusivity is ostensibly a good thing but the downside is that it invariably compromises the end product as it leads to a massive disparity between the strongest and weakest teams on show.
You can’t expect countries like South Africa or Thailand to be producing the same calibre of players as the United States or Germany. They’re simply at different stages in their developmental arc in terms of women’s football. The fact that these teams are getting well beaten doesn’t mean that the women’s game is poor, it means that FIFA don’t know how to structure a tournament properly.
The United States’ 13-0 drubbing of Thailand has been the biggest talking point of the Women’s World Cup to date, not so much because of the scoreline itself but rather the behaviour of the Americans as the scoreline materialised.
The USA built up a big lead with consummate ease but, controversially, their players continued to celebrate their goals long after the match had ended as a contest. Veteran striker Megan Rapinoe’s rather elaborate celebration for goal number nine appeared to be particularly gratuitous, and as the tenth, eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth goals rolled in, the reactions grew only marginally more muted.
This perceived lack of restraint was the focus of great scrutiny in the States and personally I would be of the opinion that the conduct of the players was a touch disrespectful considering the circumstances.
Having said that, I also have no doubt that some opponents of the women’s game were only too happy to magnify the incident purely to further their own grubby agenda, just as they did 20 years ago when Brandi Chastain was roundly chastised for taking her shirt off and baring her sports bra while celebrating her winning penalty in the 1999 World Cup final.
The American’s behaviour was widely condemned as being “inappropriate”.
Earlier that same year, Manchester United winger Ryan Giggs celebrated in a similar fashion when he scored that wondergoal against Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final. Of course, there was no public outcry then. And to be frank, I find that amount of chest hair to be more inappropriate than a sports bra, but to each their own I suppose.
All of this friction between female athletes and the media/sports community as a whole invariably comes back around to money. Progress has been made in recent years but the pay gap between women and men is still far more striking in sport than it is in the real world.
In the US, for example, women in the workplace earn 81 cents to the male dollar. Meanwhile, WNBA players make a minimum annual salary of $50,000, while salaries for their male counterparts in the NBA start at $582,180.
Of course, the NBA is a far more profitable league so it stands to reason that their stars command larger pay cheques. Whether or not the salaries earned by WNBA players are commensurate to the earnings of their league is another question.
The curious case of the USWNT (as the US Women’s National Team is rather clunkily known) is quite different. The American women have won three World Cups and four Olympic gold medals since 1991, arguably becoming the country’s favourite national team in the process. In the same period, the men have never advanced beyond the last 16 of the World Cup and they failed to even qualify for the most recent tournament in Russia.
Significantly, the women also command a larger domestic TV viewership.
Yet despite outperforming the men in every possible metric, America’s female players earn significantly less. When they won the World Cup in 2015, the US women received $1.725m from the US Soccer Federation. A year later, the men’s team were awarded $5.375m simply for reaching the knockout phase.
In a New York Times op-ed, striker Carli Lloyd explained that she receives $60 a day for expenses when travelling internationally. Male players get $75.
“Maybe they figure that women are smaller and thus eat less,” she said.
On March 16 of this year (International Women’s Day), the USWNT players filed a lawsuit against US Soccer alleging “institutional gender discrimination”. For their part, US Soccer argue that the women aren’t entitled to equal pay because they’re not doing equal work.
The case is likely to drag on into 2020 and possibly beyond.
The way some people have reacted to the recent coverage of the women’s game, you’d be forgiven for thinking that our state broadcaster bumped the Champions League final to show Cameroon versus New Zealand in Group E of the Women’s World Cup.
I certainly can’t claim to be a fanatic when it comes to women’s football. Given the choice, I’d prefer to watch a top men’s game and unless they had a vested interest in a particular women’s game, I think most people would feel the same. But luckily for soccer fans it’s not always a case of either-or. There’s not much else on at the moment (besides Love Island) so if you want to take in some of the Women’s World Cup, you can.
And if you’d rather not watch women’s soccer full stop, that’s fine too. Change the channel.
Above: US striker Carli Lloyd. Pic: Lev Radin/Shutterstock.