By Etienne Oliver
Esteemed WANT Sports Contributor
Early Struggles, Penalties, and Sexism
Women’s sports have always come second and last to men’s. Soccer is no different. Originally Europe was the leader in the progression of both men’s and women’s soccer. In 1863, the Football Association in London established soccer as an urban sport and favorite pastime for men of all ages, and only men. This trend continued during the 1900 Olympics with the first men’s soccer Olympic competition. The first Men’s World Cup took place in Uruguay in 1930. As of last summer, there has been 20 Men’s World Cups. By the late 20th century, women were starting to play soccer seriously in France, Great Britain, and Canada. However, obstacles put up an impenetrable back line, hindering their success. 1920 saw two women’s teams play a match in Liverpool, England in front of 53,000 fans; it was reported that another 10,000 people were locked out of the stadium. This event shows the eagerness for women’s soccer, but also led to the first of many blatant attacks on the sport. “In 1921, England’s Football Association banned women from playing soccer on Football League grounds because the game was deemed ‘quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.’” This ban lasted 50 years later, finally lifted in 1971.
The first Women’s World Cup was held in China in 1991 and there have been six, with the 7th this summer. Compared to 20 for the men. The first time women’s soccer was part of the Olympics was in 1996. In the 2012 London Olympic Games the English women played Brazil at Wembley Stadium (where women are traditionally banned from playing) in front of 70,584 spectators, a record British crowd and third-largest to watch a women’s game anywhere in the world. “And they’re not just turning out to see the home team. Close to 30,000 watched the United States play North Korea on a Tuesday in the first international women’s game — and first women’s game of any kind in 23 years — at Old Trafford, home of Manchester United. The 18 women’s games played so far at the Olympics have averaged 22,242…Might the London Games finally get the women’s game firmly on the sporting radar in Britain, much the same way that the Atlanta Olympics put U.S. women’s soccer on the map in 1996?”
Women’s soccer was further publicized by the 1999 Women’s World Cup held in the U.S. that started the State’s growing passion for the sport. However, early U.S. women’s leagues such as WUSA and WPS failed to capitalize on this momentum. The FA Women’s Super League was created in 2011 in England and currently has 18 teams. The women’s league in the U.S. the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) was founded in 2013 and has a total of nine teams and remains the only relevant women’s league in America. Again, compared to the men’s side, the women’s soccer timeline is decades behind; the first men’s FA Cup took place in 1871 with 15 clubs participating.
FIFA officials are not effectively promoting the women’s game, nor do they take measures to stop the discrimination against women athletes. Joseph Sepp Blatter, born 1936 (age 79) in Switzerland, has worked at FIFA in some capacity since 1975, and was elected FIFA president in 1998 and has since presided over the world of soccer, at the center of FIFA’s corruption and chauvinism for 40 years; “His key messages and aspirations are credibility, transparency and fair play. Inspired by his ‘football for all, all for football’ philosophy, a new FIFA motto came into being in 2007: ‘For the Game. For the World.’” Despite these lofty claims, praises, and mottos, Joseph Sepp Blatter is considered a disgrace to the sport by more than a majority. In an interview with the BBC World Service, Blatter said, “I consider myself a little bit as a godfather of the organization of women’s football in FIFA.”
Blatter claims that he stands and champions women’s rights and equality in sports but his embarrassing and uproariously sexist statements tell a different story. “Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts. Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so, and they already have some different rules to men — such as playing with a lighter ball. That decision was taken to create a more female aesthetic, so why not do it in fashion?” This was Blatter’s suggestion to increase the popularity of women’s soccer . Also, Blatter’s “fact” that women play with a lighter ball is false, further demonstrating his complete ignorance to rules, issues, and statistics surrounding women’s soccer; in the official FIFA Laws of the Game 2014–15 document it states that “The ball is…of a circumference of not more than 70 cm (28 ins) and not less than 68 cm (27 ins)…not more than 450 g (16 oz) and not less than 410 g (14 oz) in weight at the start of the match” and this also applies to women; “References to the male gender in the Laws of the Game in respect of referees, assistant referees, players and officials are for simplification and apply to both men and women.” FIFA, under threat of emasculation by the women’s game gives altogether undue and incorrect information about the size of their balls. Alex Morgan (one of the most recognizable female athletes in the world), a member of the U.S. Women’s National Team “says Blatter and his fellow FIFA executives didn’t recognize her when she attended the Ballon d’Or gala in January 2013 as one of three finalists for FIFA Women’s Player of the Year.” Blatter also did not recognize Brazil’s Marta (FIFA World Player of the Year five consecutive times) on stage as a finalist for the same award. Blatter failed to recognize 2 out of the 3 most famous and renowned female players in the world.
Joseph Sepp Blatter continues to make sexist remarks, such as his description of Moya Dodd, a former Australian player who was up for a position on the FIFA executive committee, as “good and good-looking.” He is a chauvinist, who brags about the number of women on the FIFA board (an amazing total of three!) and then goes on to exclaim; “Say something ladies! You are always speaking at home. Now you can speak here.” His sexism isn’t the only thing he talks nonsensically about; he has made several comments on racism and LGBTQ rights and issues such as “‘I’d say they [gay fans] should refrain from any sexual activities’” and “‘There is no racism, there is maybe one of the players towards the other, he has a word or a gesture which is not the correct one, but also the one who is affected by that, he should say it’s a game, we are in a game. At the end of the game, we shake hands, this can happen, because we have worked so hard against racism and discrimination.’” These odious remarks reflect not only poorly on FIFA and the soccer community as a whole, but also shows the world how FIFA and its “formidable” leader insolently and blatantly disrespect female athletes and have ancient and provincial patriarchal dogmatic views of women’s equality and rights in sport.
Negligence of Women Players, Records, and Statistics
Some of the most well-known and famous soccer players include Pele, Ronaldinho, Diego Maradona, Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and the ultimate modern U.S. star, Landon Donovan. These male athletes are celebrated for their achievements, skill, and love for the game. But who can name the players just as deserving of praise on the women’s side? The sad fact is that most do not recognize Sissi, Mercy Akide, Brandi Chastain, Abby Wambach, Christine Sinclair, Julie Foudy, Sue Wen, Kristine Lilly, Mia Hamm, or Christie Rampone. These shining lights are considered the most influential and greatest players of the women’s game, are glossed over in the press, media, and statistics that feature some of the greatest soccer players.
Many famous U.S. players such as Brandi Chastain, Michelle Akers, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, and Mia Hamm received recognition during the first Women’s World Cups. During her time on the U.S. national team, Julie Foudy won two World Cups and two Gold Olympic Medals as well as a Bronze. Michelle Akers, the first figurehead in U.S. women’s soccer was awarded the Golden Boot in the 1991 World Cup for scoring a new record of 10 goals during the tournament. She continued to win two World Cups, make 153 national team appearances and scored 105 goals during her time on the team. Another famous player is the original #13 for the U.S. women’s team; “Kristine Lilly has earned more career international appearances than any other player in soccer history, an honor beaten by no man or woman…Lilly made her debut for the USWNT in high school and would go on to play in five World Cup tournaments for the USA, including the victorious campaigns in 1991 and 1999…Lilly scored an incredible 130 goals during her 352 appearances with the USWNT and possesses one of sport’s most coveted records.” The most appearances for a national men’s team is Ahmed Hassan, with 184 caps, less than Lilly’s lesser known and celebrated achievement of 352 appearances. The famous Mia Hamm catapulted into the hearts of all American fans and is considered one of the greatest soccer players of all time despite gender. “Following a 3rd place finish in the 1995 World Cup, Hamm led the USA to a gold medal when they hosted the 1996 Olympics. Her international success continued in 1999, when she scored twice during the World Cup and once again led the USA to victory in the final. She would go on to win two more Gold medals in Sydney and Athens before retiring. Along the way she received two FIFA Player of the Year Awards in addition to two second place finishes. Her USA goal scoring record of 158 was only recently broken by Abby Wambach.”
U.S. players were not alone in their recognition at the end of the 20th century. Chinese player Sue Wen “shares the honor of being named FIFA’s Female Player of the Century, and is possibly the most successful Asian footballer in the sport’s history…At the age of 17, she would be capped by the Chinese National Team and would go on to lead them as China hosted the first Women’s World Cup in 1991. Sun Wen went on to play in four World Cup tournaments, including the 1999 World Cup, where she scored 10 goals and earned Golden Ball and Golden Boot Awards. Sun Wen also led China to four consecutive Asian Cup titles, but also managed a silver medal at the 1996 Olympics.” Brazil added to their rich soccer heritage the Queen of Soccer born June 2, 1967; “Sissi (pronounced See-see) grew up in the impoverished city of Salvador in northeast Brazil, one of seven children of a road construction worker and his wife. In Brazil, fathers put soccer balls next to their infant sons and mothers give their baby daughters dolls to cuddle. Sissi had different ideas. ‘I used to tear off the dolls’ heads and make them into soccer balls,’ Sissi said through an interpreter. ‘My father said to my mother, `Buy her a soccer ball. That way, she’ll leave the dolls alone.’…Sissi’s natural talent was so apparent that at 14, she left home to play with a professional club. Women’s soccer was at an embryonic state in Brazil then, and it barely learned to crawl in subsequent years.’’ At the age of 16 Sissi began featuring on the Brazil National Team and went on to win the Golden Boot in the 1999 Women’s World Cup for setting a record (since broken) of seven goals during the tournament. Sissi became yet another defining figure and all time great in women’s soccer. It is common to ask avid men’s soccer fans about Sue Wen or Sissi and be met with perplexed and confused stares. FIFA and the press (often to stay in the good graces of Blatter and his minions) extol the accomplishments of male players while ignoring the many and often far more significant achievements of these women stars.
German ex-player Lothar Matthäu is known as the “iron-man” of soccer with 150 national appearances and 26 national goals. There is little mention of Christie Rampone a.k.a. “Captain America” to her team. Rampone “made her debut in 1997 … Named captain of the U.S. Women’s National Team in 2008 …Currently the most capped active player in the world and during 2014, she became the second player in world history — joining Kristine Lilly — to reach 300 caps…Is one of two players from a small soccer school ever to make an impact on the National Team.” During her national career she has had two kids, born in 2005 and 2010 but continues to be a regular starter on the U.S. Women’s World Cup team, she has been on the World Cup team four times and 2015 will make five. Christie Rampone, not often mentioned, has been and still is regarded as one of the best defenders in both the women and men’s game.
The disdain of women’s records regarding goals or national team appearances is also an issue. Ali Daei, an Iranian player scored 109 international goals in his career and “holds” the record; “He broke the record for the most number of international goals, previously held by Hungary’s Ferenc Puskas. His record becomes even more impressive when one considers the fact that he was called up to the national team only after he turned 24.” Daei is often praised for being the greatest international goal scorer. Though 109 goals is a great achievement that should be celebrated and is indeed the record for men, this does not give cause to ignore other players, despite them being “only women”. Mia Hamm’s 158 international goals are ignored. And now, Abby Wambach has 182 international goals, as of Sunday May 17, 2015 , more than anyone else, including world class scorers such as Messi, Maradona, and Pele, in the history of soccer. Her total goals will continue to grow during the World Cup this summer. Many of the most famous women’s players have more international goals than Ali Daei’s 109 goal “record”. American Kristine Lilly has 130, Canada’s Christine Sinclair has 153, and German player Birgit Prinz has 128 international goals. Yet, these numbers are blatantly ignored in many articles, rankings of goals, appearances, and other statistics.
Some of the greatest players do not receive the proper credit they should because of gender, such as the Brazilian Marta who “is currently the greatest soccer women’s soccer player in the world and is also the greatest of all time. From 2006 to 2010, she was named FIFA World Player of the Year five consecutive times, a feat which had never previously been accomplished by any man.”
A Fight for Equal Grounds
A light has been shined on the lack of equality in women’s sports by the upcoming 2015 Women’s World Cup. It was announced by FIFA in 2013 that the international competition would be played on artificial turf in Canada. This resulted in an uproar from professional players. Abby Wambach, a U.S. soccer player currently on the team with 241 national team appearances and six time winner of American Female Athlete of the Year and 2012 FIFA World’s Woman Player of the Year spoke up first. She publically protested this FIFA decision; her and over 40 professional players signed a petition and were poised to take the issue to court and boycott the World Cup. FIFA however, stated that the issue is non-negotiable. FIFA went as far to have natural grass in the venue Moncton Stadium in New Brunswick replaced with artificial turf. Several companies, such as Scotts Lawn Care proposed and reached out to FIFA, offering to provide grass for fields; “When the “turf war” started heating up last fall, they (Scotts) reached out to see if they could help. Scotts told For The Win [USA TODAY] they had internal meetings and found out that it would cost about $500,000 per stadium field (six in all), totaling $3 million of their own money to do this at no cost to FIFA or the CSA. And they were prepared to do it…FIFA acknowledged the proposals which were rejected (the companies were informed through direct correspondence), following the National Organising Committee initial bid approved by the FIFA Executive Committee in March 2013.” FIFA’s denial of the offers made it clear that nothing about the artificial turf in the World Cup would change. “FIFA made $338 million in profit on the 2014 Men’s World Cup. The total cost of installing natural turf on all 18 playing surfaces would be approximately $9 million, which is less than 3% of that budget.” FIFA has made no changes, and with the Women’s World Cup on June 6, there is nothing left to do; the World Cup is going to be played entirely on artificial turf.
FIFA, with astonishing hubris, claims that turf does not increase risks of injuries. Nothing could be further from the truth as its use puts the health and welfare of female athletes at risk. “The study showed average surface temperature from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on a June day to be 117 degrees on both soccer and football artificial turf fields, with a high reading of 156 degrees on the football field. By contrast, the natural turf average temperature was 78.2 degrees. Asphalt topped out at almost 110 degrees and concrete at 94 degrees.” This presents a huge issue, considering players run without long rest for upwards of 90 minutes in a standard game, not including extra time, in the middle of summer. In the 2014 Men’s World Cup, for the first time in the tournament and sport’s history, official water cooling or breaks were created and lawfully mandated. The players, typically around the 25th to 30th minute in the first half and then around the 70th in the second half would take a short 5 to 10 minute break to drink and cool off with water. This was needed for natural grass. Imagine the strain on the players if the fields were turf. And yet, FIFA claims that there are no more risks to injuries on artificial turf. Compared to grass, turf blades are generally shorter in length and made of slippery plastic, creating less resistance to the soccer ball. The speed of play drastically increases. With the faster pace, players are more likely to collide. Not to mention the constant turf burn; players are left with little black pellets of plastic embedded in their raw wounds. One of the most dangerous and damaging injury to soccer players and athletes alike are MCL and ACL injuries. Knee and ankle injuries are more common on artificial turf; “Data obtained from the National Football League (NFL) Injury Surveillance System (ISS) (which investigates game-related injuries) between 2002 and 2008 shows that the injury rate per team game was 27% higher on FieldTurf than on natural grass. This was most evident for ACL injuries and eversion ankle injuries, which occurred more frequently (88% and 48%, respectively) on FieldTurf than on natural playing surfaces.” When these injuries occur, the player is out and in a brace for weeks if not months, and recovery surgery is common, along with MCL or ACL replacement surgery. Full recovery is rare. The careers of many professional athletes are needlessly cut short by these types of injuries, injuries that might be prevented and lessened in their severity by playing on grass.
FIFA further rationalizes their decision with the theory that the women have grown up playing turf and that it is the future. Do they say this about the men? The simple answer is no. Professional male soccer players would simply scoff at the turf field in anger and walk away. There was no thought of artificial turf in the recent 2014 Men’s World Cup. To rationalize this action by stating that girls and the younger generation have grown up on turf is ignoring the other gender entirely. Do high school soccer players have separate playing fields; a turf one for the girls and a grass one for the boys? With this nonsensical rationalization, it also implies that the new generation of male soccer players have also grown up on turf, so why do they get grass? Why is their future different? To think that girls have grown up watching women’s soccer (at the club, collegiate and even professional level) played on turf is true, but one of the most well-known and influential women’s sporting events was the 1999 Women’s World Cup. And guess what? It was played on grass. This World Cup had over 660,000 spectators with an estimated 40 million viewers in the U.S. alone. “On 10 July 1999, a world women’s sporting record attendance of 90,185 sun-baked fans, including former President Bill Clinton, squeezed into the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, to witness the home side pull out a breathtaking 5:4 penalty kick victory over China in the finals.” Even true women’s soccer fans who were not present, currently aware, or even alive at the time have watched the final penalty kick shootout in the championship game. Yet, FIFA says that this generation is more likely to “accept” turf, when the reality is that thousands, if not millions of young girls watched as the most influential women’s sports moment took place on grass. Natural, living, growing, green grass.
When FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke was approached about the issue of pay inequality, he stated that women should not expect equal pay, because comparing the Men’s World Cup and the Women’s World Cup is an irrelevant and useless debate. According to Valcke, the idea of comparing two games of soccer, both 90+ minutes, both 22 players, both one ball and two goals, is a laughable and offensive comparison because one game is full of women. “The comparison between the prize money of the men’s World Cup in Brazil to the women’s World Cup in Canada, that’s not even a question I will answer because it is nonsense,” Valcke said at a news conference “We played the 30th (men’s) World Cup in 2014 and we are playing the seventh women’s World Cup so things can grow step-by-step…We are still another 23 World Cups before potentially women should receive the same amount as men.” This statement attributes the fact that there has only been six Women’s World Cup to be their genders fault, when the reason behind this fact is insufficient support from FIFA; there has always been female players willing to perform, but FIFA has been too fearful and bigoted to support them.
Valcke comments that Women’s Soccer does not sell and that there are no countries that are interested in it. These statements are an over generalization, and unequivocally ignore the TV and media viewing rates, and attendance numbers. In a span of seventeen years (1994–2011) there has been 381 U.S. Women’s National Team soccer games with a total attendance of 3,726,551 with an average of 10,510 attending fans per game. The 2015 Women’s World Cup will be broadcasted exclusively on Fox Sports; “FOX Sports is planning the most expansive and comprehensive multi-platform coverage ever of the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ when the 2015 tournament in Canada kicks off in just over two weeks, including an unprecedented 16 matches airing live on FOX broadcast network. FOX Sports is televising all 52 games live from six cities across Canada between June 6 and July 5, live on FOX…No broadcast network has ever televised 16 FIFA Women’s or Men’s World Cup matches in a single tournament, and the 2015 event marks the first time since 2003 that any FIFA Women’s World Cup™ matches are scheduled for over-the-air broadcast in the U.S….Combining games with anticipated pregame, postgame and complementary programming, FOX Sports is expected to provide almost 200 hours of coverage from FIFA Women’s World Cup 2015™ averaging between six and seven hours a day over the month-long tournament.” When properly promoted, women’s soccer is accepted with open arms, as seen in the attendance of NCAA soccer programs. In 2012, Division 1 NCAA women’s soccer program at University of Portland was ranked 1st with a total home attendance of 43,064 fans for 13 games, with an average of 3,313. These figures, if combined with the 2012 NCAA D1 men’s stats would rank 3rd in average attendance behind Connecticut’s average of 4,431. The U of P women’s team and program demonstrates what proper promotion of the sport will do; so you are wrong Mr. Blatter, it is possible to advertise the sport without tighter shorts. It’s clearly obvious that there is significant interest and eagerness for women’s soccer, despite whatever Joseph Sepp Blatter or Jorem Valcke say. Their chauvinism has gone beyond ignorance. FIFA have become bigoted and xenophobic with their insistence that both women and their game are second class and unworthy of their due and just rewards.
Players like Pele, Lionel Messi, Landon Donovan, David Beckham, Ronaldinho and Maradona are admirable and are some of the greatest players and deserve to be celebrated for their gift of play, but it is players like Abby Wambach, Marta, Christine Sinclair, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, and Sissi that are my true idols. I have grown up looking up to these players, wearing #13 as a tribute to Kristine Lilly on my own team, spending countless days, hours, seconds, moments watching women’s games, adoringly witnessing history being made. I can still feel the exhilaration, wonder, and exultation as I watched the 1999 penalty kick shootout, and my pure joy and the birth of my soccer ambition as Brandi Chastain celebrated with infinite joy. These women fight magnificently on the pitch with as much skill, strength, passion, determination, and bravery as the men, and yet still have to battle against the archaic chauvinistic dogma of FIFA, and Blatter with his cronies (bought and paid for). My true idols are those fighting for an equal playing field, figuratively and literally.
(Originally Published on Medium.com)