Real soccer fans know that they don’t have to wait long for the international excitement of a World Cup to come around again. Less than a year from now, women from 24 countries will take the field in France to compete in the eighth Women’s World Cup. It promises more athleticism, drama, thrills, heartbreak and, in the United States, viewers. In fact, if history is any indication, next year’s Women’s World Cup will be a bigger deal in the United States than this year’s. (In 2015, 25.4 million people in the States watched the U.S. beat Japan in the Women’s World Cup final; 11.3 million watched France beat Croatia a couple of weeks ago.) It helps, of course, when your team is good enough not only to make the tournament but also to win it.
But as we transition from the biggest sporting event on Earth to its smaller cousin, we have to talk about why the women don’t pull down the same number of viewers or dollars as the men. The women get paid less, have fewer resources and are always treated as the lesser version of the exact same sport, even when they are national heroes. And I’m tired of it.
None of this makes sense, unless people don’t watch simply because it’s women playing.
Last year, as I was streaming a match during the UEFA women’s championship to my television (because that was the only way to view the tournament), the feed was coming in slightly blurry at times, the way streaming feeds sometimes do. It was hard to make out any discernible features of the players outside of their uniforms and, sometimes, their ponytails. The intensity and skill level of the match was high, as you’d expect at a major football competition.
If I hadn’t known I was watching women, I wouldn’t have known I was watching women. Soccer is soccer. And yet when women play it, people ignore it, make jokes about why women should be in the kitchen instead of on the pitch or come up with justifications for why this version of the sport isn’t interesting (it is; fight me) that have nothing to do with their sexism.
“FIFA needs to pay attention and invest resources in these players, and fans need to get over their sexism and tune in to the women’s game to make it harder for FIFA to dismiss.”
FIFA, the world’s leading soccer organization, barely promotes these women. According to Anne M. Peterson of the Associated Press, in Russia during the World Cup this year, “France 2019 wasn’t promoted much at all: No signs, events or displays in tourist areas.” Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated tweeted, “It was stunning how FIFA did next to nothing in Russia to promote the 2019 women’s World Cup to international fans and media. Didn’t see any visual promotion in Moscow, despite there being plenty of it for Qatar 2022.”
The women, for their part, are willing to do what it takes to play this game, whatever that is. They play in leagues and on national teams that often have trouble compensating them for their time and effort. In 2017, Brazilian superstar Neymar made roughly the same amount of money as the combined salaries of 1,693 women in leagues in France, Germany, England, the U.S., Sweden, Australia and Mexico. Citing a report from the Equalizer, Eli Horowitz wrote for Excelle Sports that in Argentina, where Lionel Messi is king and the men’s team is followed breathlessly, players on the women’s national team “are paid as low as $8.50 (150 pesos) per training session.”
This year Gaby Garton, the goalkeeper for Argentina’s national team, talked about how she and her teammates had to buy their own cleats on that paltry salary and uniforms were often hand-me-downs from men’s clubs. “It was clear,” she said, “that just being able to wear the clothes from the Argentine national team and being able to think about representing their country was something that was enough to push them and to continue playing in those conditions.” You say you love soccer, but do you love it like the women who play for Argentina’s national team?
And they don’t just sit around wallowing in these conditions. They are trying to fix them. After coming in second in the UEFA championship last year, Denmark’s team refused to play a qualifying match against Sweden in protest of lower pay and lack of resources, and the UEFA punished the Danes with a four-year suspended ban. This mirrored what Australia’s team did in 2015 after none of them were paid for two months. The U.S. team filed a complaint with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2016 over discriminatory pay practices. The same year, the Nigerian team’s members protested via a sit-in at their hotel after they won their eighth Women’s Africa Cup, because they said they had “yet to receive allowances and bonuses” for it. Two years after women’s national teams in South America (specifically Argentina, Brazil and Chile) fell out of FIFA rankings because their federations barely paid them any mind, the players chose different collective actions last year to draw attention to their plight and to demand better treatment.
And in Norway, the shining light, the men’s team is giving a small portion of its commercial earnings to the women’s team so that the men’s and women’s teams receive the same overall amount for salaries. “Norway is a country where equal standing is very important for us, so I think it is good for the country and for the sport,” Norway’s players’ union head, Joachim Walltin, told the BBC. Norway gets it! And, more important, shows that it is possible.
“Soccer is soccer. And yet when women play it, people ignore it or make jokes about why women should be in the kitchen instead of on the pitch.”
I know the argument plenty of people have already made in response to these numbers: We can’t pay women more because their game doesn’t generate as much revenue because people don’t want to watch women play soccer. The point, though, is that FIFA, federations and clubs need to pay attention and invest resources in these players, coaches and their staffers who are already giving so much of themselves in order to play. And fans need to get over their sexism and tune in to the women’s game to make it so much harder for FIFA, federations and clubs to dismiss.
You can do this right now. Travis Waldron has a primer for next year’s Women’s World Cup. The National Women’s Soccer League is the middle of its season, and the Liga MX Femenil in Mexico just started its second season. (Last season’s final set a world record for attendance at a women’s club match.) The Tournament of Nations, featuring Brazil, Japan, the U.S. and Australia, is this weekend. If you root for Manchester United, Barcelona or Juventus, root for their women’s team too. There are women’s leagues all over the world, in fact, and you can put your support behind them if you can get over whatever barrier you’ve put up when it comes to the women’s game.
If you watch just men’s soccer, not only are you missing out on so much great soccer, but you’re also not a real soccer fan and maybe (probably) sexist. Check yourself and then check out these athletes on the pitch. Then you’ll be ready when the World Cup excitement rolls around next year.
Jessica Luther is a freelance journalist, an author and a co-host of the feminist sports podcast “Burn It All Down.”