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England’s Lionesses: Football is football, no matter who kicks the ball

Juliette Barlow highlights the existing gender inequality in the world of football

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Image Credit: Liondartois

England’s Lionesses are roaring through the UEFA Women’s Euro Tournament, having won all their matches so far. They kicked off the tournament with an easy 1-0 win against Austria, followed by a stunning  8-0 against Norway and 5-0 win against Northern Ireland. They are now through to the final having beaten favourites, Spain, in a dramatic comeback, before thrashing Sweden at the semi-final stage. Their extraordinary wins have certainly reignited passion for English national football after the Men’s team’s heartbreaking penalty loss against Italy last summer.

The tournament has been harked as a new age for women’s football, with the first match (England vs Austria) attended by a record breaking 68,781 fans. This smashed the previous record of 41,301 who attended the Germany vs Norway final in Sweden in 2013.

The picture has undeniably changed since the last time England hosted the tournament in 2005, with the competition entering the mainstream public consciousness on a much larger scale. Back in 2005, the Women’s Euros only consisted of 8 teams, with many of the games failing to amass attendances of even 1,000. As well as this disregard for the tournament, rampant sexist attitudes and objectification of players were blatant even from the top rungs of the football ladder, with then UEFA President Lennart Johansson stating that ticket companies could make use of “sweaty, lovely looking girls on the ground, with the rainy weather” in order to sell tickets. This came not long after the same FIFA president suggested that the popularity of women’s football could be increased by the players wearing ‘more feminine clothes’ such as tighter shorts to create ‘a more female aesthetic.’ Today’s tournament is indisputably much more well respected, which has been reflected not only by the soaring ticket sales, but also by the increasing media attention, with coverage moving from BBC2 to BBC1.

However, despite sold-out stadiums and growing support for the England team, misogyny persists. Two thirds of women in football have experienced gender-based discrimination, with England’s right-back Lucy Bronze revealing that as a female footballer, she and other members of the squad ‘expect sexist abuse on a near daily basis’ and that it has become an ‘inescapable part of the game.’ As part of a campaign by EE, Bronze, alongside other big footballing names such as England’s men’s manager Gareth Southgate, there have been attempts to tackle online sexist hate under the tagline #notherproblem. Southgate states that ‘men can do better’ and hopes the campaign can bring awareness to the unique position that men have in helping to bring an end to sexism and misogyny, through monitoring their own behaviour as well as calling out others.

Although this is an encouraging start, it will take more to challenge the deep-seated misogyny and entrenched biases that are rife within football culture. ‘Everyday sexism’ still very much exists: with stigmas around the quality of the sport; stereotypes about the position of women within football; and general sexist comments being commonplace. Female players as well coaches, referees, journalists and many other vital positions within both Women’s and Men’s football face comments of a sexual nature, objectification, body shaming, abuse and threats of violence on a daily basis and at every level. Over 70 percent of women in football report to have experienced sexist abuse, which is shockingly normalised; no action was taken against discrimination in 68 percent of cases. Many professionals state that the industry itself does not do enough to reduce discrimination and sexism towards women in football. This lack of accountability is certainly evident in the number of highly decorated and celebrated players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar Jr and Maradona who have been accused of rape with little to no consequence to their careers. In spite of allegations, they still are highly decorated, receive paychecks for hundreds of thousands of pounds, and have a dedicated fan base of young boys who idolise their behaviour.

Sadly, the misogynistic culture of football doesn't end at the stadiums, as domestic violence has been found to surge after football matches. A 2014 study found that the number of domestic abuse incidents reported in the North-West of England increased 38 percent when England’s men lost a match compared to when they were not playing. Appallingly, women weren't even safe when England’s men won; the domestic rate still spiked by 26 percent when they won or drew. Bearing in mind that most domestic abuse incidents go unreported, the real figures are likely to be even higher.

A cursory scroll of Twitter also demonstrates rampant sexist attitudes towards the Women’s Euros and Women’s Football in general, which has been called a ‘pathetic laffable (sic) sport which is only on the radar due to ‘equality and sexism.’’ Others call it ‘absolute crap’ and argue that ‘someone saying the standard of women’s football is shit isn’t sexism, it’s true.’ Some have also called for BBC Sport to filter ‘Women’s football’ out from the Football section (as presumably, women’s football doesn’t count as football) and argued that ‘any division 2 team could beat England’s Women.’ These comments reflect the unfortunate reality that despite the increased appreciation and media coverage received by the sport, there is still a vocal number of people who blatantly disregard and disrespect it.

Institutionally, the competition has also faced a lack of support, with the FA having come under fire for offering smaller stadiums for the Women’s Euro matches. Although the first match took place in Old Trafford and the final will be in Wembley, all other stadiums have less than a 32,000 capacity, with over a quarter of matches taking place in stadiums with less than a 12,000 capacity. Notably, the Academy Stadium in Manchester, which was utilised for 3 group games, has a capacity of just 4,400 - a move that has been slammed by Icelandic International star Sara Bjork Gunnarsdottir as ‘disrespecting women’s football.’ This is a stark contrast to when England last hosted the men’s Euros in 1996, where the smallest venue utilised was Nottingham’s city ground, with a 30,000 capacity. Although this may seem inevitable due to the fact that men’s football is undeniably more popular, this demonstrates a clear prioritisation of the men’s game and misses out on a vital opportunity to capitalise on the support for women’s football and inspire another generation of female players.

This subtle sexism continues to exist even on a smaller scale. For instance, UEFA’s predictor game, where users can guess the score of every match, was downgraded for the Women’s tournament. For the Men’s Euros, users could select the first goal scorer, but for the Women’s users can only guess which team will score first. Whilst this may once again seem trivial and unimportant, much of football’s appeal comes from the culture and discussion surrounding it, and thus the relegation of the women’s game demonstrates a clear hierarchy from UEFA itself, which will inevitably influence public opinion.

In fact, this institutional marginalisation of Women’s football has historic origins. Despite a number of women’s football clubs existing from the 1890s, the sport was banned by the FA in 1921, with its Consultative Committee ruling that ‘the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged.’ Following this, the Women’s FA was not formed until 1969 - over a century after the men’s equivalent had been established - whilst the first official international game was not played until England's 1972 3-2 win against Scotland.

Although today the sport is outwardly encouraged, stereotypes and institutional barriers still persist. Progress has certainly been made; since January 2020, the FA has paid both the Women’s and Men’s teams the same match fees for representing England, but there still remains a huge gender disparity in earnings due to bonuses from the FIFA prize fund.  Had England’s Lionesses won the Women’s World Cup in 2019, they would have each received £50,000 apiece, whilst the Men’s team would have each gone home with £217,000 had they won their respective World Cup in 2018. Similarly, whilst the French FA was given £23.4m for winning the Men’s World Cup in 2018, the US Soccer Federation was only awarded £3.1m for their win at the Women’s World Cup. The England Women’s team also do not receive the same travel benefits as their male counterparts; in 2019 they were forced to take commercial flights such as Easyjet to travel to their World Cup and other matches. By contrast, England’s Under-21 Men’s team were given the luxury of a private jet to get to their Euros at the same time.

Therefore, although this year’s Euros has gone a long way in showing the great strides that Women’s Football has made over the years, there is still more to be done to kick misogyny out of football, and that burden lies on us, the fans. If we want to promote gender equality, we need to look at the language we are using. It’s important to note that the Women’s Euros is heavily referred to as the Women’s Euros, whilst the Men’s Euros is simply labelled ‘The Euros’. If we are to apply gender to a sport, we should do it equally (and no, they won’t get mixed up, as they happen during different years.) Similarly, the players are not ‘girls’ they are ‘women’, in the same way that the men’s team’s players are not referred to as ‘boys’, but as ‘men.’

But for now, we need to celebrate the wins, both big and small. Regardless of their future outcomes, the Lionesses have done an incredible job not only in their performance in the stadiums, but also in changing the perception of the sport more generally. This tournament will undoubtedly have a cultural impact, which will not only inspire a new generation of new players, but also raise a new wave of fans who respect and celebrate Women’s football. In the words of Gareth Southgate, football is football, no matter who kicks the ball.

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