Soccer's big, bad, super-sexist problem with women

The FIFA Women’s World Cup, currently underway across Canada, is the largest single-sport women’s event in the world. Too bad about the sexist comments, gender-verification testing and second-rate turf.

Christine Sinclair kicks soccer ball, scores goal, soccer, sports, Olympics

PJeff Vinnick/Getty Images Sport.

If you’re a girl and you’re sporty, chances are you play soccer. In Canada, it’s the most popular team sport for kids between 5 and 14, and about 40 percent of girls will play the game at some point while they are growing up. Those footballers have plenty of inspiration these days, with the FIFA Women’s World Cup underway on pitches from Vancouver to Moncton, featuring the best female players from around the world — among them: Brazil’s Marta, America’s Abby Wambach and our very own Christine Sinclair.

FIFA’s WWC is the largest single-sport women’s event in the world and, aside from the Olympics, the biggest athletic event that Canada has ever hosted. There are now about 30 million women around the world who play soccer and the game is growing — 24 teams are competing in the 2015 WWC (up from 16 four years ago) and 128 nations (a record number) took part in qualifying for the 2015 World Cup. Games will be broadcast in 187 countries, with more than a billion viewers expected to tune in.

But even as the current women’s World Cup offers a lot to celebrate, it also reveals the sluggish progress in real equality for female athletes. The competition was mired in controversy and a gender discrimination lawsuit (which was later dropped) before it even kicked off. A group of players launched a legal fight against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association for using pitches with artificial turf, a hazardous surface far inferior to the grass used by men. Another gender-based discrepancy? The gender-verification testing that the German and English women’s teams were subjected to by FIFA — technically, men can also be tested, but in practice that never happens.

Then there was the recent comment about the evolution in women’s soccer from Marco Aurelio Cunha, the co-ordinator for the women’s game for the Confederation of Brazilian Football. The Globe and Mail’s Stephanie Nolen, reporting on the lack of attention to women’s soccer in the otherwise football crazed Brazil, asked Cunha why he felt optimistic that things were changing. He replied: “Now the women are getting more beautiful, putting on makeup. They go in the field in an elegant manner.… We used to dress the girls as boys. So the team lacked a spirit of elegance, femininity. Now the shorts are a bit shorter, the hair styles are more done up. It’s not a woman dressed as a man.” Sadly, Cunha isn’t alone in thinking the women’s game needs to be sexier. Sepp Blatter, the disgraced former head of FIFA, once suggested that female players could increase their fan base by wearing tighter shorts.

Of course, the un-sexist way to build interest would be more press attention. But even as female involvement in sports has grown, male athletes continue to dominate the news. Despite the impressive viewership of the 2015 WWC, women’s sports overall are actually covered less in the media now than they were 15 years ago. And miniscule press attention means miniscule salaries. The winners of the WWC, for instance, will earn far, far less than their male counterparts. According to a story from Reuters, the 32 teams in 2014 men’s World Cup finals shared a prize fund of $576-million, with Germany getting $35-million for its win. The 24 teams in the current women’s World Cup will split $15-million and the winner will take home $2-million. Outside of the massive attention paid during the World Cup and the Olympics, professional opportunities for female footballers are limited and relatively low-paying; nothing like the pro careers and sponsorship deals that elite male athletes enjoy.

Correcting these disparities would make the beautiful game even more so. One sign of progress: FIFA has promised that women won’t have to play on artificial turf again. For all those young female fans cheering on their favourite teams and dreaming of their own football futures, the playing field just got a little more even.

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