The not-so-beautiful game: how the FA stifled women’s football for 50 years and paved the way for today’s vast gender gap

  • Paris Saint-Germain and Brazil star Neymar earns as much as the top-earning 1,693 women players
  • Women’s football enjoyed a massive popularity boom in England after WWI
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 December, 2018, 5:06pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 December, 2018, 5:40pm

Although women’s football has made strides towards narrowing gender inequality, breaking the glass ceiling of the world’s most popular sport remains a challenge.

Settled in April last year, the US Women’s National Team’s (USWNT) high-profile pay dispute – known as the “Equal Play, Equal Pay” campaign – has inspired movements for equality among women’s teams around the world.

“While I think there is still much progress to be made for us and for women more broadly, I think the [Women’s National Team Players Association] should be very proud of this deal and feel empowered moving forward,” USWNT co-captain Megan Rapinoe told The New York Times.

Five top players on the USWNT filed a wage-discrimination complaint against the US Soccer Federation in 2016, arguing that their male counterparts were paid more. The new collective bargaining agreement runs until 2021, covering the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

But the disparity between men and women’s football worldwide remains staggering.

By simply qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, men’s national teams netted double the amount of prize money (US$8 million, HK$62.7 million) than the US$4m that the 2019 Women’s World Cup champions will take home – France received US$38m as tournament winners in Russia.

Despite Norway’s historic equal-pay agreement for male and female footballers in 2017, Lyon and Norway striker Ada Hegerberg, who was recently crowned best women’s football player, will be absent from the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

Hegerberg says she quit the national team because the Norwegian Football Association (NFF) is not doing enough to support women’s football.

Neymar, the all-time most expensive football player, earned more than the seven best-paid women’s football leagues combined.

The Paris Saint-Germain and Brazil forward pocketed US$43.8m for the 2017-18 season from just his playing contract alone, roughly the same amount as the 1,693 top divisional female players in France, Germany, England, the US, Sweden, Australia and Mexico were paid, Sporting Intelligence’s Global Sports Salaries Survey 2017 reported.

A FIFPro 2017 global study of working conditions in professional women’s football found that the average salary of the global female player is US$600.

Of nearly 3,600 female footballers FIFPro surveyed worldwide, 46 per cent combined their football career with study and 30 per cent with another job.

Written contracts are uncommon. Almost half of the respondents (47 per cent) had no employment contract, FIFPro reported.

“Employment status is a big problem as contracts are short term in nature (one to three years) some are month to month. This comes down to a lack of investment,” said Alexandra Culvin, PhD candidate at the University of Central Lancashire and former English professional footballer.

The average salary of England’s top tier men’s football competition, the Premier League, is US$3.4m a year, or 99 times as much as the salary in the top women’s football competition, the FA Women’s Super League, according to Sporting Intelligence.

“Male Premier League players would not share the same concerns about what happens when they reach their 30s and retire from professional football whereas female players will know they cannot possibly earn enough money to live on in later years. Yet they are expected to be fully focused on their football playing careers through till their 30s, at a time when they would be gaining experience working and progressing in another career,” said Dr Stacey Pope of the University of Durham.

When the stands fell quiet, the women’s game was on the rise

After the Football League suspended all of its matches at the end of the 1914-15 season, women’s football emerged as a hugely popular sport during first world war.

Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, the most successful women’s team of all time, was formed in Preston, England by a group of munitions factory workers who played charity matches to raise money for injured servicemen. Founded in 1917, their first match attracted 10,000 spectators.

Lily Parr, the star player of Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, scored more than 1,000 goals during her 31-year playing career. The 1.83-metre tall winger reputedly had a harder shot than any male player, and once broke a professional male goalkeeper’s arm.

Crowds flocked to watch women’s matches even after the war. 53,000 people packed Everton’s Goodison Park on Boxing Day, 1920 to watch Dick, Kerr’s Ladies play St Helen’s Ladies. An estimated 14,000 spectators were locked out and unable to get into the ground.

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By 1921, there were around 150 women’s teams in England.

However, a deliberate effort by the Football Association (FA) to stop the spread and popularisation of women’s football set the women’s game back 50 years.

“Women’s football was not met with approval by those who believed that this challenged traditional gender roles and women’s ‘natural’ role in the domestic sphere. There were also concerns in men’s football at the size of the crowds that women’s football was attracting – highlighting just how popular women’s football was in Britain at this time,” Pope said.

Women were also barred from playing football in countries such as Germany, Brazil and the Netherlands throughout the twentieth century.

The 1921 ban of women’s clubs from FA-affiliated stadiums was not lifted until 1971, a year after the first unofficial Women’s World Cup was held in Italy.

“The historical banning of women’s football in 1921 meant women’s football in England never recovered its spectatorship as men’s football professionalised,” Culvin said.

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The introduction of the Women’s World Cup in 1991 was a major milestone for women’s football. Since then, the popularity of women’s football has grown tremendously.

The 2015 Women’s World Cup final between the US and Japan was the most watched football match in US history. Seven matches during the tournament had more than 50,000 spectators in attendance, according to Fifa.

But Pope’s research on the women’s sports fandom shows that there is still progress to be made: “Many of my interviewees complained that there was simply not enough media coverage of women’s football and that consequently the sport struggled to recruit fans and to be taken as seriously as men’s football.”

“Infrastructure can be improved, the schedule of the games, the priority given to TV and internationals are problematic and symptomatic of the wider problem of cultural acceptance,” Culvin added. “It is very difficult to change or impact stubborn cultural attitudes of football being a man’s game.”

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She hopes Visa’s unprecedented seven-year investment in Uefa women’s football competitions this month “will be a catalyst for more fundamental investment”.

A Fifa spokesperson told South China Morning Post that the organisation has budgeted an overall investment in women’s football of more than US$500 million for the upcoming cycle (2019-2022).

“Although women’s football has grown exponentially at all levels in recent times, the passion for and potential of the sport offers vast untapped opportunities. The launch of the Fifa Women’s Football Strategy charts the course for how Fifa will work with all stakeholders to take concrete steps to empower girls and women, make football a sport for all and advocate against gender discrimination,” the spokesperson said.