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Women’s football: Yes, it is different

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Women’s football: Yes, it is different

Women’s football is stepping into the limelight – what lessons can the men’s game take from it?

The Women’s World Cup is now in the semi-finals, and has been progressing with growing, almost palpable, excitement. After the group stages, FIFA reported record numbers of viewers in France, Italy, and Brazil for their team’s matches, as well as in the UK for the England vs. Scotland match. FIFA predicts 1 billion viewers will have tuned in by the end of the tournament.  

While this is terrific progress, it still pales in comparison to more than half of the world population watching the 2018 Men’s World Cup. But women’s football is ahead on some fronts.

None of the active professional male footballers in Britain are openly gay. In 2016 Stonewall found that 72% of football fans have heard homophobic language or abuse in stadiums, making football fans the most homophobic of all sports fans. Arsenal player Hector Bellerin even said it would be “impossible” for an openly gay player in professional football because of the abuse they would face, not just in stadiums but online as well. It may not only be the fans that dissuade players from coming out, but other teammates, or agents who may believe it will affect their earnings.

Women’s football is more accepting and welcoming to the LGBTQ+ community. Former England captain Casey Stoney has said that while she hid her sexuality from the world, she never hid it “within football circles because it is accepted”. In 2015, after leading the USA to World Cup victory, legendary player Abby Wambach ran to the stands to kiss her wife. The image became as iconic and celebrated as the one of Brandi Chastain after her penalty that won the USA the World Cup in 1999.

On the other hand, frustration brews because of the widespread assumption that all female footballers are gay, becoming “reverse homophobia”. A Sky Sports video featured the Stonewall chief executive summarising the issue: “If a woman is unusually good at something [such as a sport] she must be a lesbian…if a man is gay, he can’t possibly be good at sport because he’s not masculine enough.

Racism is also a big issue in men’s football. Kick It Out reported last November an 11% rise in reports of discriminatory abuse, with racism increasing 22% (homophobia increased 9%).  The increase is worrying, even more so because these statistics do not account for unreported incidents. The majority are from fans directed at players or other fans.

In the women’s game, reported incidents of racism do happen but seem to come more from those within football, between players or from staff. Sheffield United player Sophie Jones quit football after being found guilty of racially abusing a Tottenham player, while Eniola Aluko was subjected to racist comments from former England manager Mark Sampson and other staff. However, these are isolated incidents and come from one individual to another as opposed to from a group.  

The atmosphere around women’s football is much more inclusive, welcoming and friendly in comparison to men’s football. There may also be more of an emphasis on fair play – the current number of yellow cards per game is 2.5, which is less than the 3.5 per game tally by the end of last year’s Men’s World Cup. So, yes, the women’s game is different – and maybe that is not a bad thing.

But that doesn’t mean that women’s football is perfect. Discrimination remains an issue in football as a whole and needs to be shown the red card for good. Lord Ouseley, founder of Kick It Out, believes the push must come from those “with power, resources, and decision making capacity [to end] racism and institutional discrimination […] Above all, it’s players who deserve the most appreciation because they have had to cope with – and overcome – abuse to become role models and persuade fans to accept diversity.

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Tuesday, July 2, 2019 - 15:47