The New Zealand football team is ranked seventeenth in the world and will be competing for major trophies by the end of the decade. It’s a young side known for its good technique, and recently beat Brazil. If this sounds unfamiliar, I should clarify that I’m talking about the women’s team.
The Football Ferns recently returned from the World Cup in Canada, where they were unfortunate—“robbed”, as manager Tony Readings put it—to have gone out at the group stage. After a narrow loss to the Netherlands and a draw against the hosts, the Ferns needed to beat China to go through. But thanks to a dodgy penalty for a handball that never was, they could only manage a 2–2 draw.
The tournament itself ended last Monday in an astonishing thrashing, the USA beating Japan 5–2 after going 4–0 up within 16 minutes. When I spoke to Readings before the game, he had picked the USA as likely winners—“my heart would say Japan but my head would say USA”—and praised the Americans’ all-round quality. “There’s not much they can’t do. They’re very athletic, pretty ruthless in the way they play, and they have an excellent coach.”
As you’d perhaps expect, the national powerhouses of the women’s game are a mix of traditional footballing countries and advanced nations with (relatively) high levels of gender equality. According to the Fifa rankings and the Global Gender Gap Index, the primary ranking system for gender equality, eleven of the world’s 20 most equal countries have women’s football teams ranked in the top 20 worldwide—compared to only five with men’s teams in the top 20. A happy upshot is that the women’s game has a more genuinely global feel. Whereas it’s impossible to imagine a men’s team outside Europe or South America winning the World Cup, genuine contenders for the women’s tournament spanned five continents.
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Soon, New Zealand hopes to be among them. The Football Ferns earned their first point at a Fifa tournament in 2011, and followed this up with a breakout performance at the London Olympics, where they made the quarter finals. Since then they have benefited from over $3 million in funding from High Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ), climbing into the top 20 worldwide and earning strong results against a number of top-ranked teams.
However, the side’s failure to qualify from their group casts doubt on their continued funding—a product of ridiculous criteria that place winning above all else. HPSNZ grants are based on the likelihood of medals, which incentivises heavy investment in obscure sports like yachting ($12.4 million between 2013 and 2016), bowls ($1.1m), canoeing ($5.3m) and equestrian ($7.2m)—and leaves truly global sports like basketball ($900k) and football (for the men’s team, nothing) at a constant disadvantage.
New Zealand Football earns about $10.5 million a year, but unlike the HPSNZ funding, none of this is ringfenced for women’s football. If the Ferns’ funding is cut it would be a travesty—here, finally, is a New Zealand football team that can get results at major tournaments, and do so with some style. With all due respect to the plucky All Whites, the football they serve up is shit on a stick.
The funding struggle is one repeated across the world. Only 15 per cent of Fifa’s annual $900 million football development fund is set aside for women’s football, and the $38 million in public funding the sport receives globally is dwarfed by the men’s game—the Brazilian government, for example, spent $14 billion on last year’s World Cup. The prize money on offer for the women’s world cup totalled $15 million, compared to $358 million for the men’s tournament. Hell, Fifa even spent $30 million on its own vanity film, United Passions, which currently has a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Around the pitches in Canada, the advertising hoardings were plastered with the Gazprom logo, an uncomfortable reminder of the dodgy dealing and venality that has come to define the men’s game. Gazprom, a state-owned Russian oil and gas conglomerate linked to numerous oil spills, was named an official partner for all Fifa tournaments to the end of 2018; undoubtedly a sweetener thrown in following—or, more likely, alongside—Russia’s successful bid for the 2018 World Cup. When Fifa placed third in the 2014 Public Eye Awards—given to the companies with the worst corporate social responsibility records—Gazprom came first.
“The very, very top players in the women’s game earn enough that it’s quite a substantial salary, but for the rest of the world it’s not like that.”
The men’s game, it is often said, has too much money. Fifa is awash with kickbacks; sheikhs and oil barons pay players multi-million-dollar salaries; transfer fees regularly hit $50 million; and shady agents stir the pot, skimming 10 per cent of every obscene transaction. The buildup to the tournament was overshadowed, in May, when the long arm of the FBI snatched up 14 Fifa officials in Switzerland on corruption charges.
But according to Readings, the news of the most dramatic day in Fifa history “didn’t really affect us—we were so preoccupied with our own event”. Perhaps, too, the scope of the alleged graft and the mind-boggling figures involved—which would require a far longer article to document—were simply too far removed from the reality for most women footballers.
“Our players don’t earn enough to retire on, they earn enough to get by,” Readings says. “The very, very top players in the women’s game earn enough that it’s quite a substantial salary, but for the rest of the world it’s not like that.” Indeed, only four players in the world earn six-figure salaries. Dozens of male players can match that in a week. The US women’s league is the wealthiest and most prestigious in the game, but it has now gone bust twice, most recently in 2012.
The financial struggles are an outgrowth of a longer-term, cultural struggle against football’s deeply ingrained sexism—one that goes right back to the sport’s genesis. The modern game emerged against a backdrop of hyper-masculine class warfare between eighteenth-century public schoolmasters (drawn from the rising bourgeoisie and professional classes) and their aristocratic charges. The boys, in defiance of their socially inferior teachers, would stage periodic rebellions—essentially riots—which were marked by games of traditional folk football that better resembled pitched battles. This sport was chosen specifically for its violent tendencies, an arena for the older students to dominate and brutalise the younger ones in an outgrowth of the so-called “prefect-fagging” system. (A form of traditional football is still played in Italy under the name calcio storico. The matches are little more than mass brawls between over 50 pantaloon-clad participants, and punches to the head, choking, and headbutts are all legal.)
Over the nineteenth century, the schoolmasters managed to codify these ultraviolent games and curb their more barbarous tendencies. Nonetheless, the genesis of football and its various offshoots (rugby, Aussie rules, gridiron) as a rationalised form of violence and domination—and the integration of the sport into the public education system—has served to reinforce an aggressive form of hegemonic masculinity. According to sports scholar Michael Messner, “Sport was a male-created homosocial cultural sphere that provided men with psychological separation from the perceived ‘feminisation’ of society, while also providing dramatic symbolic ‘proof’ of the natural superiority of men over women.”
If it’s true, as many scholars of psychology and gender have claimed, that aggressive masculinity is a way to compensate for male insecurity, then football has always provided, in its way, a study in the fragility of modern manhood. The English game in particular has traditionally prided itself upon a certain vision of manly Britannia, heroically resisting the effete sensibilities of its limp-wristed Continental rivals. For decades, English teams set out to batter their opponents beneath a thrusting thunderstorm of thighs and neck muscles, reacting to every new defeat to foreigners—with their fancy tricks like “passing”—by doubling down on its model of high-aggression head tennis.
Following a brief surge in popularity during World War I, when most of Europe’s young men were away and women’s games started drawing crowds of over 50,000, the English FA in 1921 banned women’s football from its grounds (“the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”), a prohibition it only lifted in 1971. Within Fifa, women have been conspicuous by their absence, and President Sepp Blatter has a made a string of outlandishly sexist statements. In 2004, he called for women footballers to wear “tighter shorts” to improve the global appeal of their game. At a 2013 Fifa conference, he endorsed Australian Moya Dodds for a Fifa executive position on the grounds that she was “good and good looking”; and later that same week, he called on the women present to “Say something, ladies! You are always speaking at home, say something now!”
The English game in particular has traditionally prided itself upon a certain vision of manly Britannia, heroically resisting the effete sensibilities of its limp-wristed Continental rivals.
In fairness, the problems go far wider than Sepp, who has personally overseen the first appointments of women to Fifa’s executive committee. In 2014, Blatter admitted that “there’s something very reluctant” in football to accept women in governance. “Football is very macho,” he said. “It’s so difficult to accept [women] in the game … It took more than 100 years for Fifa to elect a woman in the executive committee. It’s not easy to change these attitudes. One day they should make the chair of Fifa a woman and then this will change, I am sure.”
Until then, it seems, we’re stuck with a string of depressing flashpoints. In 2011, two of Sky TV’s highest-profile commentators were sacked after making disparaging remarks about assistant referee Sian Massey. Last year, Portuguese coach Helena Costa was appointed manager of French club Clermont Foot, becoming the first woman to coach a professional men’s side in France. The whole thing quickly turned into a bizarre PR disaster. Costa quit within a month, citing “total amateurism” on the club’s part and all but accusing them of hiring her as a publicity stunt. At a press conference, club president Claude Michy put it thus: “She’s a woman. They are capable of leading us to believe in certain things.”
Allegations of sexism flared up again in the lead-up to this year’s World Cup. The tournament was to be played exclusively on artificial turf instead of grass—a cheaper option that impairs ball movement and increases the risk of injuries. USA star Abby Wambach said “the men would strike playing on artificial turf”, and over 80 players sued Fifa and the Canada Soccer Association for gender discrimination. Against its own legal advice, the Canadians refused to enter mediation, and the lawsuit collapsed in January after the French, Mexican and Costa Rican associations threatened to suspend the players involved.
According to Readings, “if [the Ferns] had a choice, we definitely would have chosen grass—it’s just a nicer surface to play on, it doesn’t take so much toll on your body, the ball moves quicker.” As for injuries, he says, “we’ve got some players with shin splints for example, and they flare up a lot more on turf. Some players have got niggly backs and when we train on turf regularly it definitely flares those injuries up. But there’s nothing you can do about it … sometimes football’s played on grass, sometimes on turf, and the best teams are still the ones at the business end of the tournament.”
The Puskas award is given out by Fifa every year to the most beautiful goal of the preceding 12 months. In 2014 one of the nominees was Stephanie Roche for a spectacular three-touch finish for Ireland’s Peamount United. Receiving the ball on the edge of the penalty area, with her back to goal and a defender in close attention, Roche flicked the ball up with her first touch. With her second she flicked it back over her shoulder, completely wrong-footing the defender. Swivelling through 180 degrees, Roche hit it for a third time, straight into the top corner of the net from twenty metres. Not once did the ball touch the ground.
So good was Roche’s goal that no question of tokenism ever arose. Indeed, sharing the stage with names like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Tim Cahill and Diego Costa, Roche could deservedly call herself a frontrunner for the award. As it was she finished second in the public vote with 33 per cent, sandwiched between two iconic World Cup moments—behind James Rodriguez’s volley against Uruguay, but ahead of Robin Van Persie’s dramatic swandive header against Spain. Had Rodriguez’s goal—surely one of the most overrated of all time—not been the decisive moment of a World Cup knockout match, Roche would most likely have won.
A large proportion of fans disparage women’s football as slower and less exciting than the men’s version. Many of the same people hailed Spain’s string of glacial 1–0 wins at the 2010 World Cup as poetry in motion, and religiously tuned in to watch Wayne Rooney et al. stagger their way toward stodgy 0–0 draws. They would all have missed Karen Carney’s goal against Colombia, a double nutmeg from an acute angle. Nor would they have seen France’s 3–0 demolition of South Korea in the quarter finals, every goal an exhibition of dribbling and one-touch passing. Nor Carli Lloyd’s goal in the final, a ridiculous 60-metre shot that ranks alongside anything David Beckham or Xabi Alonso ever produced.
“Across the board, the technical ability of the players is a pleasure to watch, the pace of the game has definitely increased massively.”
The point is, women’s football has arrived, it’s fucking good, and it’s getting better all the time. “You have some outstanding individual players like you do in the men’s game,” Readings says, picking out Japan’s Aya Miyama and USA’s Alex Morgan as the sport’s Messi and Ronaldo. “Across the board, the technical ability of the players is a pleasure to watch, the pace of the game has definitely increased massively. Most people I know who have given it a go are really surprised by how far the game has moved forward.”
As well as surprising a large number of fans with the quality of its play, Readings believes the women’s game is also starting to convert neutrals put off the men’s version by the amount of diving, injury faking, time-wasting and arguing with the referee—features (almost) absent from the women’s game.
To many, the World Cup—watched by an estimated 400 million—has provided a welcome tonic to football’s usual cacophony of bling. For one thing, the players are simply more interesting and human; whether they’re sticking it to Fifa, or speaking openly about their struggles with mental illness and loss, they’re a stark contrast to the dull, cliché-spouting men. Readings, too, hints that the women’s game provides a different kind of role model. He notes that many male players are motivated by “extrinsic rewards, like fame and salary”, but that these rewards aren’t really on the table for women. Instead, female players rely on intrinsic rewards: “to be the best you can be, to be part of growing the game in your country and globally”.
Everyone involved in the sport is optimistic about its future. “What this tournament’s shown is how far women’s football has come,” Readings says. “It’s grown massively. There’s an improvement in everything from coaching, the players, the speed that the game’s played, the marketing—everything around it has grown so much. It will have created a lot of new fans and people will take the game a lot more seriously.”
Over half of all school-aged girls in New Zealand play football in some form, and the number of registered players, though still lagging behind netball, is increasing rapidly. With an average age of just 23, the current crop of Football Ferns will be peaking just in time for the 2019 World Cup and 2020 Olympics. The team is on the cusp of establishing itself as a heavyweight in one of the world’s fastest-growing sports—if it can retain its funding.
“We want to be beating the likes of USA, Germany, England, Japan and Canada,” Reading says. “We want to be competing right at the latter stages of these tournaments and competing for the titles themselves. [In terms of resources] we’ve got far more than we’ve ever had before, but we’re still quite far adrift of these other teams.”