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The Women's World Cup Is Still Depressingly Sexist

by Matt Hershberger Jun 8, 2015

FIFA, WE ALL KNOW BY NOW, IS a terrible, exploitative, corrupt organization that is mercifully being taken to task by the United States Justice Department. FIFA seems to have adopted the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas approach to crime: go “to such excess that nobody in a position to bring the hammer down on us could possibly believe it.” The list of alleged crimes is truly staggering: Bribery. Corruption. Massive human rights abuses.

It’s easy to lose, in this gigantic mess of sleaziness and crime, another ugly aspect of FIFA’s reign: its rampant sexism.

Sleazy officials and female soccer players.

Last week, the head of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, resigned in the wake of the corruption scandal. It was a victory for soccer fans all over the world, but it was a particular victory for female soccer fans. Blatter famously once said that, in order to make women’s soccer more popular, that they should “let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts.”

This quote, disgusting as it is, has received a ton of play. But it obscures a larger trend of sexism in FIFA over the years: namely, excluding women from its governing body: only three members of the 27-member Executive Committee are women. Until 2013 there were none at all (there is research, by the way, indicating that a larger proportion of women in governance is correlated with lower levels of corruption). When they were elected, Blatter said, “We now have three ladies on the board. Say something ladies! You are always speaking at home, say something now!”

We will pause for a second to give you a chance to scream into a pillow.

He also called one of the new female members “good and good-looking.”

Pillow break!

When asked about the problem of women in FIFA governance in 2014, Blatter responded with, “Football is very macho. It’s so difficult to accept [women] in the game. Not playing the game, but in the governance.”

This inequality at the top does, unfortunately, have ramifications at the bottom.

The unequal treatment of women’s soccer players.

The first and most obvious inequality between the sports is in the payscale. The highest paid women’s soccer players are Americans Heather O’Reilly, Abby Wambach, and Brazilian Marta Vieira, who make $70,000, $140,000, and $400,000 a year, respectively. The world’s highest paid men’s players are Neymar, Ronaldo, and Messi, who make $40 million, $59 million, and $71 million, respectively.

This is deceptive, though: most women’s soccer players don’t make anywhere near that much. The average salary on the U.S. men’s team is $207,831, while the U.S. women’s team make anywhere between $6,000 and $30,000 a year. $6,000, by the way, is a little over half as much as you need to make to still be below the poverty line.

Wambach, by the way, is the all-time highest goal scorer period. In 2014, Sepp Blatter confused Wambach’s wife, Sarah Huffman, with Marta Vieira, the most famous women’s soccer player in the world.

Here’s a picture of Wambach (left) and Huffman (right):

And here’s a picture of Marta Vieira:

Just… wow.

The inequality doesn’t stop at income. Last year, 60 women’s players filed a gender discrimination suit against FIFA because of the decision to play this year’s Women’s World Cup entirely on turf rather than on natural grass. Players dislike playing on turf because, as the Guardian writes, “Turf greatly increases risk of player injury because of increased friction and decreased shock absorption, including career-ending injuries like ACL tears, concussions and knee injuries, as well as severe turf-specific injuries like turf toe and burns(including anti-bacteria-resistant infections).”

But it’s not just about injury: turf fundamentally changes the game. “The ball doesn’t roll the same. The ball bounces differently. You can’t slide tackle like you would be able to on grass,” American player Sydney Leroux told CBS. “No chance would the men ever play a World Cup on turf,” she said, “I think the women are being treated as guinea pigs.”

Megan Rapinoe, an American midfielder, agrees: “FIFA made a $338 million profit on the 2014 Men’s World Cup. To say that it’s not logistically possible to install real grass at all the stadiums is not acceptable, in my opinion. We have played on grass all our lives. Now we’re going to compete at the highest level on a different surface.”

Please: Watch the Women’s World Cup.

So what can you do about sexism in soccer personally? Well, there’s one simple answer: Watch the Women’s World Cup.

Why? Well first off, soccer’s the best, and if you’ve gone a full year without chanting, “I believe that we will win!” then you have the chance to start again. And the idea that women’s soccer is somehow less exciting to watch is completely ludicrous, and is typically just promoted by sexist blowhards. It’s soccer, for Christ’s sake, the difference between the men and women’s game isn’t the same as a the difference between powderpuff and full-contact football players. While there are differences, they’re largely overstated: Carolina Morace, an Italian soccer coach who has worked with both men and women in both Italy and Canada, said, “I found much bigger variations between Italian women and Canadian women than I found between men and women in the same country.”

There is one difference that will matter to American viewers: One of America’s most frequent complaints about soccer is that everyone is constantly taking dives, which our fans tend to see as dishonest and dishonorable. Daryl Rosenbaum, a sports medicine physician, examined hours of tapes of both men and women’s games, and found that women go to the ground half as much as men do, and that when they do, they are twice as likely to be injured.

Another perk for American viewers is that in the Women’s World Cup, unlike in the men’s, the United States actually has a chance. Going into the World Cup, we were ranked second only to Germany. As of right now, the American men’s team is ranked 27th.

The impulse on hearing of FIFA’s atrocious sexism, corruption, and enabling of human rights abuses may be to boycott FIFA events altogether. And in some cases, organized boycotts may be appropriate (some European nations are currently considering a separate, FIFAless 2018 World Cup). But what women’s sports are lacking aren’t talented athletes, but broader public support. With FIFA going into a tailspin, now may be the best time to come out in strong support of women’s soccer: the organization is in a state of disarray, which will (hopefully, but not necessarily) mean it will be going through some major changes in the next few years, and the best way to get FIFA to take women’s soccer seriously will be to show that American sports fans are interested in the game. Where fans go, sponsors go. Where sponsors go, FIFA goes.

So please: watch the Women’s World Cup. These women have earned our attention.

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