Women Soccer Players Win World Cup but Wait for Respect

This year, the U.S. women won the World Cup. Their spectacular performance was eagerly followed by 26.7 million viewers on television in the U.S. alone. According to FOX News, the game is the most- watched soccer game in American television history; the match had more viewers in the U.S. than any men’s soccer game. The game had more viewers than the World Series, the NBA Finals and the Stanley Cup.

The San Francisco Lions scoring a goal. Photo by Steve Lambright

The San Francisco Lions scoring a goal. Photo by Steve Lambright

The U.S. Women are at the top of the global soccer world, and women’s soccer is finally beginning to get some of the attention it deserves.

While fans support women’s soccer, FIFA, the International Federation of Association Football, doesn’t give women’s soccer the same respect as it does to men’s. FIFA decided to play the women’s World Cup tournament on artificial turf, while the men’s tournament was played on fields of bright green grass. Moreover, the women’s World Cup was played in smaller, older stadiums, with less pre-cup coverage, less funding, and millions less in prize cup money. The women’s final would have been the perfect end to a perfect tournament, if not for the artificial, plastic, sole- blistering turf, a reminder that women athletes still have a long, long way to go.

Before the tournament, outrage mounted against the decision to use turf. A group of internationally-acclaimed players filed a gender-discrimination lawsuit against the Canadian Soccer Association and FIFA. According to USA Today, the group was composed of more than 80 female players, including Brazil’s Marta Vieira da Silva, Germany’s Nadine Angerer and the U.S.’s own Abby Wambach. The players noted that every men’s World Cup, and all women’s games before this year, have been played on grass, as it is seen as the superior playing surface. Sydney Leroux, a U.S. forward, said in an article in USA TODAY, that “Men would never play a World Cup on turf. Some men in Major League Soccer don’t even travel when (games are) on turf because they won’t play on it.” The same article later quotes Wambach, “The men would strike playing on artificial turf.” The attorney representing the group in the gender-discrimination lawsuit, Hampton Dellinger, revealed in a statement to the Washington Post that the players were suing because “forcing the 2015 women’s World Cup to take place on artificial turf rather than grass was not only wrong but also constituted illegal sex discrimination…The difference matters: plastic pitches alter how the game is played, pose unique safety risks and are considered inferior for international competition.”

Girls playing soccer in the 2012 World Cup. Photo courtesy of Llgar Jafarov

Girls playing soccer in the 2012 World Cup. Photo courtesy of Llgar Jafarov

FIFA didn’t just fight the case; instead, they reportedly sent these players the message that if they continued with the lawsuit, they wouldn’t be permitted to play at all. The players, already preparing for the tournament, dropped the suit.

Is the danger of turf real?

The American Academy of Neurology, along with other researchers and medical groups, has been conducting studies on turf with some worrisome results. Turf has been pointed to as a cause of increased number of injuries, like sprained ankles, turf burns and concussions. It shows that women are more likely to get concussions playing soccer than playing other sports, and that concussions seem to be more likely when playing on turf, rather than grass. Another danger is that turf gets dangerously hot, while grass stays relatively cool.

A study conducted in 2002 on artificial turf practice fields at Brigham Young University in Utah measured the surface temperature on both grass and turf fields, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The average of the grass fields was 78.2 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to 117 degrees Fahrenheit on the turf fields. Turf is generally more than 30 degrees hotter than natural grass. During the study by BYU, one day, as the air hit 98 degrees, the field heated up to a blistering 200 degrees, causing BYU to set “a standard of 120 degrees as its safety cutoff. At 122 degrees, the study showed injury to skin occurred within 10 minutes,” reported Abilene Reporter News.

A game between the Boston Breakers and Cutler Ridge Soccer Club. Photo by Leonard Cederholm

A game between the Boston Breakers and Cutler Ridge Soccer Club. Photo by Leonard Cederholm

After a World Cup game, Michelle Heyman, an Australian forward, was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald, “You wouldn’t want to see the bottom of our feet after a game…The skin is all ripped off; it’s pretty disgusting. It’s like walking on hot coals with your skin ripping and slowly cracking, constantly.”

Not only does the heat endangers players, turf is also toxic. According to the Environmental and Human Health Inc., “Of the 96 chemicals detected [in artificial turf], a little under a half have had no toxicity assessments done on them for their health effects. … Of the half that have had toxicity assessments, 20 percent are probable carcinogens.” Besides just health concerns, turf also affects the game. It affects the way the ball bounces, and the rubber pellets get into players eyes as they slide or head a ball covered in turf.

As horrible as being forced to play on turf sounds, it’s only one of the many inequalities that plague female players. There are gaping differences in the tournament venues. The 2014 Men’s World Cup was played in brand-new stadiums with grass, while some of the women’s games were played in a 30-plus year stadium on turf. The smallest arena in the men’s world cup held almost 40,000 people, while many of the women’s arenas seated just over 10,000 people.

U.S. women also received far less air time and very little pre-cup coverage, despite being favorites to win, while the men got much more attention with a next to nothing chance of winning.

Even the prize for women the World Cup was not equal. The U.S. women won $2 million for winning their final; the German men won $35 million. Just to get in the round of 16, men’s teams won $8 million, four times as much as the female champions.

Despite its promised responsibility to promote the game for both men and women, FIFA has a long history of mistreating its female players. Some hope that with the resignation of Sepp Blatter as FIFA president, because of corruption charges, women’s treatment by FIFA has a chance to improve. Many of the women players have had negative interactions with Blatter and other top FIFA officials.

FiveThirtyEight wrote that Blatter suggested, in 2014, as a way for the women to increase popularity of women’s soccer, “They could, for example, wear 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?” Women do not, in fact, play with a lighter ball, which was apparently unknown to the man who had been running FIFA for five years. On June 2, 2015, after Blatter announced his resignation as FIFA president, effective after the association’s February 26, 2016 elections, Megan Rapinoe, the U.S. midfielder, tweeted, “Ding dong the witch is dead.”

However, on Thursday, October 8, Blatter was suspened by FIFA’s ethics committee, while it investigates the charges brought against him. Other high-ranking FIFA officials were also suspended, and some were even banned, from all football activities, for 6 years.

While professional salaries are not established by FIFA, but by independent leagues, there are huge discrepancies between men and women exist there too. The minimum salary in men’s professional league, Major League Soccer, is $60,000; the minimum salary in the National Women’s Soccer League is $6,842. On salaries like this, many professional women players struggle to make ends meet.

Jazmine Reeves, the Rookie of the Year in 2014, plays on the Boston Breakers. She explained, “When people find out you’re a professional soccer player, they think it’s awesome. But they think it’s awesome because there are certain assumptions that go along with the life of being a professional athlete. And they don’t realize that for us [women], it’s kind of like the exact opposite.” The team tried to help Reeves so that she wouldn’t have to worry about rent by placing her with a host family, but it still wasn’t perfect because “My host family was great, but at the same time, as an adult, you want to be able to pay for your own apartment,” she said. Unfortunately, this lack of funding lost the Breakers a valuable player, and the soccer world a worthy addition to its ever-expanding ranks. At only 22 years old, she retired from playing professional soccer, instead taking a job at Amazon. “Who wouldn’t want to do what they love and say that’s their job?” Reeves asked. “I’m not saying I would never play again, but I can’t live off of what they gave me. I can’t.”

As far behind as women soccer players are compared to their male counterparts in the U.S., they’re still miles ahead of women players in the rest of the world. For women in many countries, playing soccer isn’t an opportunity they ever get. San Francisco soccer coach and educational researcher, Norman Ferrer, revealed, “The first time that I ever actually saw girls playing organized soccer was when I came to the U.S. …. I grew up in Colombia, and I didn’t grow up with girls playing soccer; it was a boy’s sport.”

The U.S. women have dominated international women’s soccer for the last 25 years. One explanation, put forward by Kuang Keng Kuek Ser of Public Radio International, as reported by The Washington Post, points at America’s social attitudes towards women as a factor in the U.S. team’s success. After reviewing the United Nations’ Gender Inequality Index, Kuek Ser recognized a direct relationship between a country’s performance on gender equality to it’s performance on the soccer field. The Gender Inequality Index (GII) is a measurement, country by country, to find out how well women are doing compared to men in terms of health, political power and economic standing. He graphed the top 23 teams in this summer’s World Cup, and the results are startling. The teams with the most points in the tournament were all countries with a fairly low level of gender inequality. Certain rules and regulations in America have contributed to lower levels of gender inequality, and one of those is Title IX. After Title IX was enacted in 1978, the number of girls and women playing soccer shot up. According to Benjamin Morris of FiveThirtyEight, “The number of women playing high school soccer in the U.S. rose from just a few tens of thousands in the 1970s to about 375,000” in the 21st Century. Almost 20% of high school female athletes now play soccer, making it the 3rd most popular women’s team sport. Martha Stoddard, a performing arts teacher at Lick-Wilmerding High School, and a former soccer player at Stanford, recalled, “Prior to Title IX, nobody paid any attention to women’s sports at all.” As the U.S. women do better and better, more girls are inspired to get into the sport, seen clearly in the increase of players after the 1999 World Cup, which was won by the U.S. women’s team.
FIFA reports that worldwide, girls make up only 12% of youth soccer players, with more than half of that 12% coming from the U.S. alone. In the rest of the world, girls playing soccer is often unusual and looked down on. Coach Ferrer noted that even in countries where girls do play soccer, they don’t start until they’re in high school. Other countries are now “developing the infrastructure [to get girls playing soccer from an early age]….The Spanish government just mandated that all professional club teams create development academies for girls…this is happening right now in many places…The governments and national organizations are saying we need to develop women’s soccer… Most countries are still at the very beginning stages of developing girls soccer.”

When girls do play soccer in some countries, they aren’t looked at like heroes, as are their male counterparts. In Brazil, for example, there is a huge difference in the treatment of budding male and female soccer players. Boys are taught to play soccer and walk simultaneously, while female players are often referred to as “sapatão” or “big shoes,” which are slang terms for “lesbian.” In Brazil, women were officially banned from playing from 1941 to 1979. While the ban has been lifted, there is still no national league in Brazil for women.

Even if soccer organizations are striving towards gender equality, they have to ask themselves why this gap exists in the first place. Why is women’s soccer treated so differently than men’s? Some coaches point to differences in the way that girls play compared to boys, even at a young age, but Ferrer argues that differences are often “over-emphasized,” which “gets in the way of providing opportunities for girls to develop into strong players.” He asked, of all these supposed differences between men and women, how much of the difference is the player, and “how much of that is what we conditioned [them] socially to do?”

Although women still have a long way to go, many are heartened by the recent success stories in women’s soccer. When asked what impact she thinks this summer’s win at the World Cup will have on the rest of the soccer world, Stoddard replied, “I hope that it will say hey the U.S. takes women’s soccer seriously. Look at these women, they’re really good; they really work at it.” Bonnie Wong, a defender on Lick-Wilmerding’s soccer team, also commented on her hopes for the future, “It’s disappointing how male athletes are more highly praised for their accomplishments in soccer, even at the high school level. Hopefully, over time, people will look past the gender of the person and focus on her skill as a player.”

Leave a Reply