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an football also be a women’s game?

The question may seem old-fashioned or superfluous in certain parts of the world. Even if it has historically been dominated by men, football is one of the most popular female sports too, with some 30 million girls and women playing it worldwide, according to football-governing body Fifa

Despite football being such a widespread sport, women constantly face discrimination, sexism and limited resources. This discrimination takes place on several levels. In several countries, girls are not allowed to play at all. In others, they are discouraged by their own families to play, because football is not considered feminine. In other cases, they are accused of being manly. Most come up against cultural stereotypes, even at an institutional level. Fifa and several national football associations have pledged to double the number of girls who play within the next few years. But it is not so simple. For example, former Fifa President Joseph Blatter  asked women to wear tighter uniforms to make their games more commercial, while Italy's former president of the amateur football association referred to female players as a “bunch of lesbians”. 

Neymar makes the equivalent of 1,693 female players from the worlds's top leagues.

There is also a financial question. Football is not different from the general worldwide trend, where women earn about 20% less than their male counterparts. Research by the World Economic Forum shows that it will take 100 years for the global gender pay gap to close. The world of football is far from different: the Sporting Intelligence 2017 salary survey suggests that the gender pay gap is more entrenched in football than in politics, business, medicine and science. According to the survey, Neymar's 36.8-million-euro contract from Paris Saint-Germain is almost exactly the same as the combined yearly salary of 1,693 female players from the world's top seven women's leagues (France, Germany, England, USA, Sweden, Australia and Mexico).

Disparity of salaries does not only occur within clubs, where many would argue is a direct result of the higher revenues that male football can obtain. Even for national teams, where it is the state to decide how to remunerate the players, women earn less than men. Sometimes, they don't earn anything at all. Thirty-five per cent of national team players don’t receive any compensation for representing their country, according to a recent survey by World's Players Union FIFPro. Few nations, such as Norway and Denmark, are taking steps in the right direction.

Women's football is discriminated even when it comes to media coverage: only 4% of sports media content is dedicated to women’s sport and only 12% of sports news is presented by women.

“When we decide what we want to do and who we want to be, we look to the society around us and we say, what is the opportunity structure here, what are people like me doing, and what can people like me do?,” says Rachel Allison, a sociologist specialised in sport and gender at Mississippi State University. “As a young girl, if you don't see any other girls or women who are participating in soccer, it is very likely that you are not going to develop that aspiration in the first place.”

We spoke to well-established and aspiring female footballers in Africa, Europe and Latin America to map out gender inequality through the lens of football. 

 
 

Brazil

"Incompatible with women's nature"

“S

This is what Marta Vieira da Silva heard time and again as she was growing up. Born in Dois Riachos, in the north-eastern state of Alagoas, one of Brazil's poorest, she was the only girl in her small town who played football.

he is not normal.”

“People made sure to let you know that,” she says, tearing up. 

Known simply as Marta, she is by all accounts a football legend. She holds the record for the most goals scored at the Women's World Cup, and is the only woman to have been named the world's best footballer five times. But Marta struggled to make it to the top, and the feeling of frustration and sadness of those early days are still fresh in her memory. 

“It was just me – a girl in the middle of a lot of boys."

Marta Vieira Da Silva

“It was just me – a girl in the middle of a lot of boys. It’s only logical that most of my family members didn’t approve. They didn’t accept it because people still thought that it wasn’t allowed for girls to play football” Marta says.

Between 1941 and 1979, Brazil's government banned women from playing football and other sports that were “incompatible with their nature”.

Even after the ban was lifted, prejudice and stereotypes remained.

In 1999, when Marta was 13, she was not allowed to play a tournament for being a girl.

“I was very frustrated at that moment. I looked around, I stopped to think, and I just couldn’t understand it,” said Marta. “Why is it so hard to accept that a human being was born with a talent, knows how to play, wants to do it and that is what makes her happy?”

Similar stories continue to take place nowadays.

Laura Pigatin dreams of becoming a professional footballer, but she cannot participate in regional tournaments.

The best players made their careers abroad. Marta, for example, moved to Sweden at age 18 and now holds dual citizenship. Despite becoming a legend, in Brazil she remains known as “Pelé in a skirt.”

Women remain almost invisible vis-a-vis the men's team, which monopolises international attention as the most successful, with five World Cup victories.

“Even if it is recognised as the country of football, Brazil is the country of men's football,” said Angelica Souza of Dibradoras, a Brazilian website dedicated to women's sport.

Since the 1980s, few resources have been allocated to women's football in Brazil. Several national tournaments were discontinued, and female players earn so little they often have to work another job. It was not until 2013 that Brazil's Football Confederation (CBF) launched a national women's league.

“Even if it is recognised as the country of football, Brazil is the country of men’s football.”
Angelica Souza, women’s sport expert

 

Rio Preto Esporte Clube is a perfect example of this lack of resources. The female team won the national league in 2015 and the Sao Paolo championship in 2016 and 2017. But their training ground has holes where ants built their nests, and one of their senior players, Jessica de Lima, doubles as a coach, earning 2,500 reais (US$765) a month. The others earn even less—between 1,500 to 2,000 reais (US$460 to US$615) a month, drawn from a city council scholarship—and live five to a room in a house provided by the club owners.

“I fought so hard in my life to get to play football that there is not going to be any excuse that will stop me,” says de Lima.

“It's like night and day,” says Sarai Bareman, Fifa's chief women's football officer, comparing men's and women's football in Brazil.

Bareman is due to travel to Brazil in April to address several concerns with CBF.

In 2017, the CBF came under fire after dismissing Emily Lima, the national team's first-ever female coach. Five leading players resigned from the team. “We, and almost all other Brazilian women, are excluded from the leadership and decision-making for our own team and our own sport,” the players said in an open letter. “The actions we are taking now, are motivated by a desire that all of the women and girls that follow in our footsteps are able to achieve more than we did, including on and off the field.”

“In South America, there is a negative perception for young girls trying to get into the game. I think Fifa has a huge role, which is to lead by example,” says Bareman.

Marta, the so-called “queen of football”, says fighting is necessary to create change.

The Gambia

How far do you go to pursue your dream?

She was the national team goalkeeper and played for the Red Scorpions, one of the strongest teams in the country's female league.

F

atim Jawara was one of The Gambia's top players.

At age 15, she represented her country in the Under-17 World Cup.

For her performance, she received a prize from the government. She gave that money to her mother, who used it to build a bigger house in the crowded family compound she shared with Fatim's father and his other three wives, dozens of children and grandchildren.

For Fatim, every day represented a new struggle: she earned no salary from football and faced constant criticism from neighbours who thought her appearance was too manly. She also came up against the cultural barriers that make women's lives in the West African country particularly challenging.

“Fatim was kind of strange in the family,” says Momodou Jawara, Fatim's older brother. “In The Gambia, if you act like that, they look at you like a lesbian, even if you're not. And everyone knows the tradition: if you are a lesbian, you are put aside, they don't even want to talk about you.”

In 2016, at age 19, she decided to embark on a dangerous journey to pursue her dream: become a professional footballer in Europe.

 

Her story made headlines around the world – but for the wrong reason: in October 2016, Fatim Jawara died in the Mediterranean, as the inflatable boat that carried her and dozens of others capsized.

Fatim took what’s called “the backway” into Europe - this is how Gambians describe the route that thousands of people take if they don't have a visa. It is a long, dangerous and expensive journey, which can cost over $2,000, most of which goes to smugglers along the way.

Fatim travelled with a friend, but it is unclear how they saved money for the trip. They went from The Gambia into Senegal, then Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, crossing the Sahara desert, all the way to the Libyan coast.

In 2016, when Fatim made this trip, thousands of Gambians attempted the same journey. The Gambia has 1.8 million inhabitants – in 2016, close to 1% of the country's entire population reached the coasts of Europe.

“Fatim would have succeeded to be a shining star. I really want to champion her cause for her to become a symbol of hope for the youths.”  
Fatoumata Jallow-Tambajang, The Gambia’s vice-president

“She had no opportunity as a girl to excel, to achieve her dream of being maybe a football star in The Gambia,” says Fatoumata Jallow-Tambajang, The Gambia's vice-president and minister responsible for women's affairs. “Looking at Fatim's background, with the opportunities in Europe which she was driving at, she would have succeeded to be a shining star. I really want to champion her cause for her not to be forgotten, to become a symbol of hope for the youths.” 

Fatim Jawara's story serves as a cautionary tale for her team mates, who say they would never attempt such a journey, despite the lack of money and infrastructure for women's football. 

Girls play on sandy pitches. Often their goals have no nets. They earn no salary even in the first league. They only qualified once for the Under-17 World Cup—it happened in 2012 in Azerbaijan, and Fatim was part of that lucky team. But they did not make it past the group stage and took a beating in each game.

The tragic story of Fatim Jawara serves as a cautionary tale for other young women footballers in The Gambia.

According to Unicef, three in four girls undergo female genital mutilations, one in three are married before the age of 18, and one in ten before the age of 15.

With a majority Muslim population and a strong tribal society, girls in The Gambia face many cultural barriers. Female genital mutilation and child marriage remain widespread, despite bans that came into place in 2015 and 2016 respectively. The UN children’s agency UNICEF says that three in four girls are cut, one in three are married before the age of 18, and one in ten before the age of 15.

But despite this challenging background, there is a women's football league, and the sport is growing among girls. 

Aminata Camara faced a lot of opposition at home to play football, but now she is the captain of the Under-17 national team.

“Whenever they hear about football, they say it is for men, not ladies,” says Ajara Samba, 19, a national team player and friend of Jawara's and Camara's.

Many girls, including Samba and Camara, dream of playing abroad one day. But they have few options. There are no talent scouts that cover women's football here. Only once, in 2017, did striker Adama Tamba manage a trial with Paris Saint-Germain, but she did not receive a contract.

Samba says that usually women in The Gambia leave football around the age of 20, something that is common in other countries too, because they are drawn into forming a family and fitting into a more traditional role. “By that time, you will see that you're growing old, and you're not gaining anything from playing football,” says Samba.

 

Denmark

Still fighting for equal rights

N

adia Nadim may have never discovered her talent, had she not arrived in Denmark under dramatic circumstances.

Her father, Rabani, was a general in the Afghan army, and he was killed by the Taliban when Nadia was 10. Nadia's mother Hamida decided to summon her five daughters and escape to Europe. 

The six women drove to Pakistan, paying a smuggler to help them. With fake passports, they flew to Italy. Then they hid in a truck and ended up in Denmark.

It was in a Danish asylum centre that Nadia started playing football.

“I never knew girls can play football or any sport in general,” she says. “I knew what football was because my dad was so into the game, and I had a football at home, but we used to play other games with it.”

Nadia went on to becoming the first nationalised Dane to play in the women's national football team. She was named the best player of the year by the Danish football association in 2016 and 2017 and one of the country's biggest newspapers gave her an award as the Dane of the Year

“If I had stayed in Afghanistan, I would probably be married and have some kids, and be home. I can't really imagine actually being alive because the way my mentality is,” she says.

Nadia Nadim is a role model for girls who dream of a football career.

Denmark is considered one of the most equal countries in Europe and worldwide. It comes only after Sweden on the European Gender Equality Index, scoring well above the EU average.

Yet, women footballers fight for more recognition by sponsors, and for equal pay. 

“Coming to a country like Denmark, where equality should be a priority, I was surprised that it wasn’t. I was actually disappointed to see how unfair it was,” says Nadia. 

European
Gender Equality Index

Country                    Score              

1) Sweden                       82.6 

2) Denmark                      76.8

3) Finland                        73.0

4) Netherlands                 72.9

5) France                         72.6

6) United Kingdom            71.5

7) Belgium                       70.5

8) Ireland                         69.5

9) Luxembourg                  69.0

10) Slovenia                    68.4

In 2017, the women's national team came second in the Euro Cup, drawing more spectators than ever. The national team players tried took advantage of the momentum and tried to negotiate better salary and working conditions for their contracts. They even went on strike, missing a World Cup qualifying match, putting at risk their qualification. The situation was so tense, that the players from the men national team stepped in. They suggested to pay 500,000 DKK (US$82,000) a year from their income to level up any differences. The Danish Football Association (DBU) declined the offer. 

Finally, in November 2017, the pay gap dispute ended up with a deal. The women's side negotiated a four-year contract that improves health insurance coverage as well as monthly allowances for female players, bridging the gap with the men's national team.

Given the limited resources available within clubs, women rely heavily on the pay they receive from the national teams. 

The Danish deal came only a month after a historic agreement was made in Norway. In October 2017, Norway became the first country in the world to give both national football teams equal conditions on pay. It was the Norwegian football association to suggest new conditions, which translates into a doubling of the salary for women. 

“As a football player you have an obligation to fight for rights, and equality is basically a human right. Why is it so different? And why are we still thinking like we are in Stone Age in a country like Denmark?”, says Nadim.

“In Denmark football is still a boys’ game.”
Jette Andersen, president of Fortuna Hjørring club

“In Denmark football is still like a boys’ game, because we don’t have equal rights for national team players and for the girls,” says Jette Andersen, president of Fortuna Hjørring, an all-women's football club in northern Denmark. Nadia Nadim played there before her career took off internationally.

In 2017, the team opened up Denmark's first elite football academy for girls in order to foster a new generation of young female players.

“Our club is 100% for girls and I think it makes a big difference. They don’t have to compete with the boys' side,” says Andersen.

One former footballer says that, though it may seem counterintuitive, things in more advanced countries like Denmark have moved slowly because of what she calls “gratitude guilt”.

“You are so grateful that you are allowed to play,” says Caroline Jönsson, chair of the Women's Football Committee of FIFPro World's Players' Union and former goalkeeper for Sweden's national team.

She provides an internal critique by explaining the difficulties that athletes face in looking ahead. “Realistically they could take that chance of playing football away from you. It is a real threat. Sometimes teams go bankrupt even in the highest leagues. Historically there have been bans on women playing football,” says Jönsson. “That threat becomes internalised, for many generations it's been hard for women to push because we are just so glad that we can play.”

 

J

 The struggle

ust to say that girls need to be more persistent, that they need to lean in, that can't

be the solution,” says Rachel Allison of Mississippi State University.

“There can't be an individual-level solution to a social, structural problem.”

In 2017, international women's movements received a lot of media attention. There was a growing demand for equal pay, women's strikes and the much publicised #metoo movement, which started off denouncing cases of abuse in Hollywood and moved on to other spheres. Maybe as a proof of what spiked interest among people, Merriam-Webster dictionary announced that feminism was its most searched Word of the Year in 2017.

“This is a feminist struggle.”
Rachel Allison, sociologist

Even in an environment like football, which is predominantly male in its symbols, possibilities and resources, women's voices are slowly becoming more prominent. In 2016, Fifa announced financial incentives for national federations in an effort to push them to spend more on women's football. 

In March 2018, Fifa President Gianni Infantino proposed to launch a women's global league. Clubs in Europe are also picking up interest, with Manchester United most recently launching a women's team too.

In some cases, financial opportunities are becoming more available, and a surge in spectators is opening up new commercial avenues.

In other cases, changes are being possible thanks to organised fights. The Danish team sat out a World Cup qualifier, Argentinian players went on strike, the Irish and Swedish national teams threatened to miss matches in order to negotiate better deals, and several Brazilian players resigned from the national team in protest. In some countries, the fight paid off. National teams in Holland, the United States, Denmark, Sweden, Australia, Scotland and Norway signed new deals with their national associations. Norway became the first national federation to implement an equal pay deal for men and women.

“What is happening in football now is new and different and a challenge that players are posing to gender inequality,” says Allison. “I think we are going to look back and say these are turning points, this is where we began to see cracks, with movements to change and transformation. This is a feminist struggle.”

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