When Two Elephants Fight, It is the Grass That Suffers

A meeting of two great football minds

Dr. Jean Williams is a Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for Sporting History and Culture De Montfort University in Leicester England. Having written on women’s football since 1998, Jean has recently published A Contemporary History of Women’s Sport 1850-1960 (Routledge, 2014). She is currently writing Send Her Victorious: A History of Britain’s Women Olympians 1900-2014 (Manchester UP, 2015).

In 1998 I spent some time in Namibia for the second World Conference on Women in Sport. I had a dual purpose to collect information on women’s football in Namibia for my PhD thesis and to raise my awareness of the issues facing African women who wanted to participate in sport. Several national women’s football teams were represented at the conference and they met as a group to protest at the lack of support from FIFA, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the world governing body of football. Being present at the meeting of the African women’s national teams and FIFA representatives, I was invited to advise FIFA how the Women Sport International 1994 Brighton Declaration on Women’s Sport, a commitment to increase the number and visibility of women in world sport, could be applied specifically to international football. My research therefore anticipated pledges to increase gender equity in the football industry. The Los Angeles Declaration on Women’s Football was launched at the second FIFA World Symposium to coincide with the Los Angeles Women’s World Cup in 1999.  At the symposium, my academic work was showcased on a panel with presentations from the head of the Football Association of PR China, Zhang Jilong; the French Minister for Sport, Marie George Buffet and Anita De Frantz, a Vice President of the International Olympic Committee. All 203 FIFA member national associations attended, with over 500 delegates. It seemed like real change was about to come for women’s football and I was optimistic.

I was a little daunted about telling all those FIFA representative countries assembled at the symposium in 1999 about the institutionalized nature of sexism in the world game. In the end I should not have worried. I only spoke fifteen minutes and it was not as if my audience were going to be enlightened or challenged by my presentation. Kevan Pipe of the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) was one of the most supportive and friendly of the national representatives in LA. Some years later, I applauded the decision to host the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada, thinking of Kevan’s support for women’s soccer.  However, he has since retired from the CSA and I became gradually aware that some of the institutional attitudes towards women’s soccer I had spoken out against in 1999 were still very much in evidence almost sixteen years later.

The title for my post today is a favourite saying of my football coach and by it, he meant that if authority figures within the club have conflicts, the players can be affected by the tensions. But it has a wider applicability to those in positions in responsibility and their effect on those without power. One of the elephants in the WWC 2015 Canada dispute is FIFA, whose rules state that an entire tournament has to be played on the same surface and the first scheduled match was the artificial pitch at Vancouver BC, a stadium which holds 55,000 people. After the decision to host all games on artificial surfaces became more known, a human rights lawsuit was lodged on behalf of a collection of prominent international female football stars. The likes of Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan of the US Women’s National Team; the current FIFA World Female Player of the Year, Nadine Angerer of Germany; Fabiana Da Silva Simoes of Brazil and Spain’s Veronica Boquete are suing FIFA and CSA for gender discrimination. This collective is the second elephant of the proverb, and perceived by some in the media as the more aggressively controversial of the two. Surely, the rhetoric against the human rights action has argued, the players should be pleased and grateful to have full stadia and FIFA backing? Other sports leagues in which men participate use the new 3G synthetic turf technologies, such as Rugby League. Isn’t Wambach’s lawsuit some sort of symbolic case, rather than being about sport?

In some key respects, the fake turf versus real grass debate is more symbolic than about practicalities. I have no evidence to support my hunch, but I suspect some faction at FIFA think an artificial surface will speed up play and so provide a better television spectacle. But when taken in longer context the authenticity of football as a male sport is what is being symbolised by material changes to the game form. Dating back to the first twelve national teams to appear in the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991, FIFA has sought to modify women’s football as ‘other’, and therefore inauthentic. This goes back to a much longer policy tension in FIFAs contested role as world governing body of football. When business interests in Asia, Europe and America began to foster control of professional women’s football in the 1960s, FIFA could not call itself the global protector of soccer and ignore female players. So it integrated women’s football into the work of its constituent national associations from 1969 but without much enthusiasm. Hence, the reason why it took over 30 years to organize the first soccer Women’s World Cup, well behind both cricket and rugby.

Structural ways of undermining women’s football as inferior versions of the male game are as old as FIFA’s relationship with its female players. The assumptions are based on women’s football as infantile (it is constantly referred to as ‘growing’ ‘progressing’ and about to ‘come of age’) and displaying female physical inferiority. In the FIFA archive, I have seen many debates about whether women players should have 35 or 40 minute halves in international games, play with a size 4 football or so on. In the 1995 Women’s World Cup in Sweden, the tournament was scheduled alongside an athletics competition because it was assumed that not enough fans would attend a female football competition in its own right. There were also experiments with competition formats in Sweden such as ‘roll on roll off’ substitutions and a coach ‘time out’ system.

Even when placed in the context of Olympic Football, which is essentially a youth tournaments for male players under the age of 23 and women, FIFA minutes reveal that the male final should always be scheduled after the female final.  So taken together, these structural judgments and changes to the game form itself undermine and trivialize women’s football, even in the most high profile international tournaments. Because it has some legitimacy as the world governing body, albeit a disputed and increasingly contested authority, FIFA’s condescension to women players draws less attention than challenges to its legal primacy. However, rationalizing institutional sexism is not the same as behaving in a rational or responsible manner.

I hope Wambach and the other high profile players boycott the Women’s World Cup in 2015, rather than settle for an artificial and inferior future for women’s football. Even by FIFA’s own inflated estimates for women and girls, they make up at best 10 per cent of the world’s players. I think the US and Canadian players have a strong hand in that North America is a potential growth market for soccer and one that FIFA is keen to exploit. Mia Hamm and Tim Howard have both backed the call for real grass. Ultimately, what message does it send out when the best women in the world are undermined in this way? Perhaps in this instance, it is better that the two elephants fight over fake turf in the public domain rather than accept the decision in silence and the grass roots of the game learn that being a girl means always being second best. We are still being asked to commend for women for taking part in sport and men for winning. Beyond that, women and girls are told that they should be grateful for a share of the ball. All Abby and co want is a level, live, green playing field that releases the smell of grass when the sun is upon it, not the fragrance of artificial chemicals. It’d probably be better for their knees and ankles as well as their souls. Is that too much to ask?