The Euros prove it: women’s football is not like that of men and that’s good | Jen Offord

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In 2015, I interviewed Chelsea FC Women manager Emma Hayes. The interview got off to a bad start when I asked her the seemingly innocuous question: “Can women ever achieve equality with men?” The women’s game was nowhere near parity with the men’s, she told me.

Seven years later, they still do (but they also had a 50-year lead – we’ll talk about that later). But what really frustrated her, I felt, was the constant comparisons to the men’s game. Couldn’t we “enjoy [women’s football] in its own right,” she asked, and recognize it as “an excellent product” regardless?

As a young, idealistic journalist, I found it difficult to understand Hayes’ point of view. Surely that was internalized misogyny talking? Women’s football was growing in popularity, so why should its female players be grateful to be paid the living London wage, when male footballers brought in up to £200,000 a week?

But over time, I started to understand what she meant. It is important to recognize women’s football as a distinct product, as it is a different product, and in this regard, it presents different opportunities. For starters, women’s football hasn’t been corrupted by money, nor mired in accusations of misconduct or toxic fan culture, and we can stop it heading in the same direction as men’s football.

It’s also undeniably a more family-friendly environment, and it’s great to see so many young women and girls in the crowd flocking to the Women’s Euro. I would be surprised, for example, to find fans if drunk during a women’s football match that they ended up falling on the people in the row in front of them, as I experienced during the Ligue 1 play-off final in 2019.

This year’s Women’s Euro saw record after record in terms of attendance and viewership, and today women’s football at international level is an unstoppable force. The quality and talent displayed during the tournament was immense, especially that of the Lionesses in their 4-0 semi-final win over Sweden. Sure, there were some less exciting matches, but let’s not pretend the same can’t be said for men’s football.

Since the 2017 relaunch of the professionalized Women’s Super League – a move some say was intended to embarrass some of England’s top clubs into publicly committing to women’s football – some have taken the ‘#oneclub’ approach. » : if you appreciate your club, you place the same value on all the teams that are part of it.

It’s a nice idea in theory, if the fans buy into it, but let’s not pretend that football is a sport of equal opportunity between men and women – we have to play matches against each other in order to recognize these disparities.

It also means the difference between men’s and women’s football is less valued – “#NotWomensFootball” Volkswagen adverts to state of the tournament this summer, but why isn’t that? By positioning the women’s teams as sort of a spin-off of the big Premier League clubs, we’re not really encouraging people to appreciate it as a ‘great product’ in its own right, and there are quite a few aspects of the male game that we wouldn’t really want to emulate.

That said, there is no perfect solution. Treating women’s football as a separate product also exposes it to the weight of expectations placed on women in society as a whole. Why is women’s football considered more “family”? Because women are softer? Less inclined to dive, swear and chat with the referee? (Just ask Spain’s Misa Rodriguez about it.) Even at this year’s Women’s Euro, commentators claimed it’s unusual for players to behave in this way.

Just look at the criticism Arsenal players received when they traveled to Dubai in January 2021 at the height of Tier 4 Covid restrictions to see how we view the players. We simply expect better of them than their male counterparts. They are expected to act as ambassadors for the game rather than just swinging around with a Gucci toiletry bag and AirPods, playing football and off again.

However, the undeniable elephant in the room when it comes to women’s football, and one of the main problems with the ‘one club’ approach, is that women still pocket a tiny fraction of what male players earn. at comparable levels, and the investment in the women’s game is much lower. Paradoxically, this seems to be the root of why women’s football is favored by some, and also why women’s and men’s football will never be equally revered. Men are raging on social media saying ‘WOMEN CAN’T FILL STADIUMS’ which may be true but little is being done to explain why.

In 1921, the FA voted to ban women’s football, deeming the game “utterly unsuitable for women”. Just a year earlier, the women’s game was enjoying record success, with 53,000 fans attending a Boxing Day match at Goodison Park. It took 92 years to see this attendance record broken. The legacy of this ban, along with the current male-centric setup, means that top female teams are beholden to the goodwill of their male overlords. Just look at how Charlton Athletic Women were sacrificed to budget cuts in 2006 after the men’s side were relegated from the Premier League.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. “There are radical ways to rethink women’s football,” Professor Jean Williams, author of The History of Women’s Football, tells me, quoting Angel City, a franchise of the US National Women’s Soccer League, a club founded by women – the Hollywood star Natalie Portman. , no less – in 2020, as a fully-fledged women’s club. “But that doesn’t happen here – women’s football is a sub-brand of men’s football.”

The big question for the FA, UEFA and Fifa to answer is whether women’s football is a lucrative exercise, a tick box, or whether they – and the men’s teams who have benefited from a patriarchal structure of long-standing – have a moral obligation to develop women’s football, even if it comes at an upfront cost.

  • Jen Offord is producer and presenter of the Standard Issue podcast and author of The Year of the Robin

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