Brian Oliver

In the run-up to the seventh, and biggest, “official” Women’s World Cup, there have been significant achievements by individuals, teams and National Federations that can only make women more widely welcomed within the football world. There has also been a stealthy growth of playing numbers worldwide.

England is one of the success stories, with the professional league having just started its fifth season, and the number of registered players up to a quarter of a million, according to the Football Association (FA).

The sport was given royal approval when Prince William, taking up his official engagements again after the birth of Princess Charlotte, met the World Cup squad at the FA’s headquarters in Burton-upon-Trent.

There is plenty more positive news. After 20 years of underachievement by teams from Catholic countries, the Latin American representation in Canada is a record-breaking five. For the first time, in an era when their men’s teams have excelled, Spain have qualified. If the increase from 16 to 24 teams has helped those countries, it has had a similar effect elsewhere: Thailand are the first qualifiers from South-East Asia, while both the Netherlands and Ivory Coast will make their debut appearance.

The finalists were whittled down from a record 128 entrants. The ambitious targets for ticket sales and global broadcast audience are 1.5 million and 800 million respectively, both of which, like the prize money of $2 million (£1.3 million/€1.7 million), would double the figures from the 2011 World Cup in Germany. According to FIFA, 30 million women worldwide play football and 177 nations, at the latest count, have a “top women’s league”. The numbers look impressive.  

The tournament in Canada will feature the youngest coach in World Cup history: Ecuador’s Vanessa Arauz, at 26, is younger than Lionel Messi.  Away from the World Cup another coach has made the most significant individual achievement by any woman in football for many years. Corrine Diacre, former captain of France who played in the 2003 World Cup and won the last of her 121 caps 10 years ago, has just done something nobody would have thought possible back in the 1960s, when women’s football was effectively banned in some of the world’s biggest football-playing nations. She has managed a men’s team, Clermont Foot in the French second division, for an entire season.

Wind back the clock to the years immediately before the first FIFA-sanctioned Women’s World Championship in 1991 - the governing body did not want to risk calling it a World Cup at the time in case it was a failure - and it appears that great progress has been made in a relatively short time.

It is not all good news. Only eight of those 24 World Cup teams have a female coach. There was a threat of a players’ strike during a long dispute over the use of artificial pitches.

While those ticket sales and TV audience targets are eye-catching, the real picture is less impressive. The target was set at 1.5 million  but at the start of the week ticket sales were below 900,000. And the 2011 TV viewing figures include anybody who watched a game for just three consecutive minutes. The average attendance at qualifying games around the world was lower than 2,000.

Worst of all, to any outsider the scheduling is an unfathomable mess: it seems as though male football executives have tried their hardest to turn attention away from the World Cup, even if it is not deliberate.

Frenchwoman Corrine Diacre is the current manager of men's French Second Division team Clermont Foot
Frenchwoman Corrine Diacre is the current manager of men's French Second Division team Clermont Foot ©Getty Images

The World Cup dates were set long ago, and were planned to avoid competing with other big sporting events in Canada. The opening games are on the same day as the final of the UEFA Champions League, one of the biggest attractions in world football. And, in the year when Latin American teams have finally made their mark, the World Cup also clashes with the Copa America, the South American continent’s biggest tournament. Brazil and Colombia’s women both have fixtures on June 17 - the day when those two nations’ men’s teams play each other in the Copa.

There are fears that the efforts of Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, and Ecuador will go largely unnoticed by their own people. That would be a missed opportunity, not least because women’s football in South America has not generated a single dollar of sponsorship income, according to FIFA’s own research. 

Before the mass arrests in Switzerland diverted his attention away from women’s football and led to his departure from FIFA, Blatter gave an interview to the BBC in which he said he felt like “the godfather of women’s football”. Under his reign, FIFA has made significant additions to the international calendar, not just by doubling the number of finalists in the World Cup, but by adding U20 and U17 tournaments in recent years.

In an address to all member nations, Blatter said there were many obstacles yet to overcome, some of them self-inflicted. “There is still work to be done in the promotion of the women’s game,” he said on the day when Cameroon were the first of the World Cup squads to arrive in Canada.

“The women’s game is not respected enough.”

That made the US World Cup player Alex Morgan laugh. When Morgan, who has 1.7m followers on Twitter and is one of the biggest names in women’s football, attended FIFA’s World Player of the Year awards, Blatter did not know who she was.  

“And I was being honoured as top three in the world! That was pretty shocking,” Morgan told Time. “I have experienced sexism multiple times, and I’m sure I will a lot more.”

“We need more women in the football institutions,” Blatter stated on the day of his re-election, four days before he stepped down. In Italy, it cannot happen quickly enough.

Felice Belloli, President of Italian football’s amateur leagues, and the man with ultimate responsibility for competitive women’s football, is “an embarrassment to his nation” in the view of Italy’s Prime Minister. When the funding of female football development was recently discussed, Belloli said, “Enough. You cannot always talk about giving money to this bunch of lesbians.”

His comments were revealed on the very day when Blatter made his statement about “work to be done”. Belloli’s view was “disgusting and sexist” according to Italy’s national team captain, Patrizia Panico.

“What hurts more is that he has shown he doesn't know anything about women's football,” Panico said. “We receive hardly any money from the league and sadly we don't have our own structure. We're still ruled by a male-focused organisation - that's a huge obstacle for our growth.”

American star Alex Morgan was embarrassed at the FIFA World Player of the Year awards as President Sepp Blatter had no idea who she was
American star Alex Morgan was embarrassed at the FIFA World Player of the Year awards as President Sepp Blatter had no idea who she was ©Getty Images

FIFA’s figures back up her view. One person per nation, on average, sits on an executive committee - one place in 12 on average. There are 83,000 female coaches worldwide, about 7 per cent of the total. “However, information is missing about the number of female coaches who are actually in charge of a team,” said a FIFA spokesperson.

Belloli was voted out of office eight days after his comments were reported. If there is one woman who would not have been surprised by his views, or by FIFA’s lack of meaningful information on coaches, it is Carolina Morace, Italy’s most-capped player and by far the most famous woman in Italian football, even though she moved to Canada and Australia to further her career.

Morace is known simply as “Carolina” in Italy, where she was a respected analyst of televised football, and where, in 1999, she became the first woman in the world to be appointed manager of a men’s professional team. She quit after two games, both victories against higher-ranked sides, because of “lack of support” from the club owner.

She made her first appearance in the blue shirt of Italy aged 14, was the first woman to score a World Cup hat-trick, and netted more than 100 international goals. Her club tally was 12 national titles. She managed the national team for five years after leaving that ill-fated club job at Viterbese in Serie C, the third tier of Italian football.

Morace, 51, a lawyer and one of the most highly qualified female coaches in football, now runs a coaching academy in Perth, Western Australia. She is enthusiastic about Diacre’s achievement at Clermont - “I sent her a congratulatory message” - but is very downbeat about the state of Italian women’s football.

“I come from a macho country and, against the trend in other parts of the world, we have gone backwards since I stopped playing 15 years ago,” Morace told insidethegames.

“Women’s football is not in schools, nor do clubs have dedicated female sections. Nothing is happening. There is a plan for Serie ‘A’ teams to all have a women’s section, to make it statutory, but it hasn’t happened. That would make a difference.

“Despite clear directives, all three (senior, U20, U17) national teams are presided over by males. This situation is seemingly supported by the national federation while many highly qualified and competent female coaches continue not to be employed in influential positions.

“The unspeakable statements made by Mr Belloli are a complete contradiction, when in fact it is he who should be our advocate and is charged with protecting, promoting and developing women’s football. How is women’s football in Italy to progress if this is the mentality of the people at the pinnacle of the Italian Federation?

“I can’t see much changing in the next 20 to 30 years. There is so much work to be done.”

There is another problem on the pitch, if the game is to appeal to a mass audience, said Morace. “We need to improve the physical training. One problem with the women’s game is the lack of pace, teams playing everything at the same speed. Without bursts of change in pace it can be boring.”

Abby Wambach, a former World Player of the Year who is one of the key players for the US, said, “There needs to be more women in FIFA. The growth of women’s soccer all around the world has been slow.” National Federations were as much to blame as FIFA, she said, echoing Morace’s view.

The decision to play all of the matches at the upcoming FIFA Women's World Cup on artifical surfaces has been lamasted by America's Abby Wambach
The decision to play all of the matches at the upcoming FIFA Women's World Cup on artifical surfaces has been lamasted by America's Abby Wambach ©Getty Images

Wambach, 34, was furious with FIFA’s decision to play all World Cup games on artificial surfaces. The players were not consulted, and there was talk of a boycott of the tournament. It was a clear example of FIFA saying one thing - give women more of a say - and doing another.

Another complaint raised by the outgoing “godfather” Blatter was insufficient spending on development by National Federations. This point would have chimed with the women’s teams from Haiti, Jamaica and Trinidad, among others, and with academics who have tried, and failed, to find out how much money is spent on women’s football.

When they arrived for the World Cup qualifying tournament in Pennsylvania last October, Haiti did not have a single paid player, coach, physio or manager with them: everyone was a volunteer, and on their own time. Jamaica needed the help of Bob Marley’s daughter to raise their profile, and money to fund the team. Trinidad had been given the grand total of $500 (£326/€444) to last the entire team for a week. They had to beg for support on social media, and raised $17,000 (£11,000/€15,000). This is the nation whose infamous head of football, Jack Warner, is said to have taken tens of millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks.

Further south, Argentina’s women have had to return their national team shirts after a game because they cannot afford to lose any, says Brenda Elsey. “Imagine Lionel Messi being asked to do that,” said Elsey, who is writing a book on women’s football throughout Latin America with Joshua Nadel, a fellow American academic.

In researching Futbolera: Women, Gender and Sport in Latin America, Elsey and Nadel were met by a barrier from the two continental bodies when they sought hard numbers.

“Information is not forthcoming,” said Nadel. “It is even harder to get information from CONCACAF (Central America and Caribbean) than it is from CONMEBOL (South America). FIFA recently published an 84-page study of what’s going on around the world in women’s football but did not disaggregate by nation, so any figures on spending on development are totally distorted.”

While Haiti had an all-volunteer team at qualifying, the USA had nearly one support person for every player, said Nadel. “The difference between the top three or four and the rest is vast.

“FIFA requires that 15% of financial assistance grants given to all the nations is spent on the women’s game and that’s not a lot of money, $37,500 (£24,000/€33,000). But worse, there is no enforcement of that rule, nor is it verified nation by nation. In 2010 FIFA gave an extra $500,000 (£326,000/€444,000) to each nation, but there was no 15% rule for that money. Why not?”

When insidethgames sought information on spending and playing numbers from CONMEBOL, their media office acknowledged receipt of the questions and said they would reply soon. Despite a reminder a week later, they never did.

There is a gulf, too, further south. Brazil is way ahead of the rest in terms of playing numbers and organised leagues, said Elsey, and also has the biggest star in the game, Marta, who has been World Player of the Year five times. Elsey can barely believe the timing of the World Cup and the Copa.

“The clash with the Copa suggests men are not at all interested in women’s football,” she said.

“Male players can do a tremendous amount to raise levels of interest and awareness in the women’s game, they can and should campaign against sexism in the way they do against racism. But because of this clash the prospect of Neymar meeting Marta to publicise the games, for example, just isn’t going to happen.

“The game desperately needs promotion. The TV rights for the South American qualifying tournament were offered to all the countries for nothing, and still nobody took it. Eventually, because Ecuador were doing well, they showed the games halfway through the tournament. The rest - nothing.”

Current FIFA President Sepp Blatter claims to be the godfather of women's football
Current FIFA President Sepp Blatter claims to be the godfather of women's football ©Getty Images

As for the level of spending, said Elsey, it is impossible to find out. “I have asked CONMEBOL repeatedly, then I went directly to FIFA, but FIFA said it was not required for federations to give details of their spending on women’s football development.”

Worldwide, $156m (£101 million/€138 million) is spent on women’s football, said FIFA, of which $24m (£15 million/€21 million) comes from governments and sponsors. The sums are not broken down by nation, but by far the highest spenders are the United States, Canada and Europe’s top-performing nations.

The “macho” attitude in many countries is a constant problem. There are practical difficulties for female players too, not least in Islamic and Latin countries, where women are often discouraged from playing sport, and throughout Africa. In Asia and South America 40% of FIFA’s member nations said women’s football was “culturally challenged”.

Peter Alegi, who has written on the development of women’s sport in Africa and coached teams, said, “A group of girls I coached after school in Cape Town all loved football but said they couldn’t play because they would be too late home to do their chores.

“Girls are expected to do washing, cleaning, cooking and childcare for younger siblings, and it will be enforced by their mother, grandparents and older sisters. These gendered structures are hard to navigate.”

There is also the problem of homophobia. Nigeria ditched players from the team “not because they were not good players, but because they were lesbians,” said a Football Federation official in 2011, when the national team coach, a born-again Christian, also spoke out about the “immorality” of gay players, who were not welcome in her team. 

In South Africa in 2008 a top player was gang-raped and murdered for being openly gay. Eudy Simelane, who played for the national team and was studying to become a referee, was beaten, stabbed and left in a ditch to die. 

National leagues are underdeveloped, money is scarce, the cultural problems abound, and Africa is “aeons away from the United States and Europe” said Alegi, author of African Soccerscapes. He sees signs for optimism, though. “The youth competitions, U17 and U20, have been a good development and progress has been made in the past 20 years. And commercial opportunities are just beginning to happen now.”

Janine Van Wyk, captain of South Africa’s national team, has a deal with Nike, and her team-mate Amanda Dlamini models Jockey underwear. “Women footballers can sell goods,” said Alegi. The nation with the most marketable female players is the USA. Of the 40 most-followed footballers, male and female, on Twitter, four are members of the American women’s World Cup squad.

One of those four is Meg Rapinoe. After Blatter quit she used the medium to say, “Ding dong the witch is dead.” Many more will be celebrating Blatter’s departure and hoping for a better future for women’s football under the new regime.

For more than half of the last 100 years FIFA wanted nothing to do with women, as players, referees, coaches or administrators. In England, women were effectively barred from the football establishment for nearly 50 years; in Brazil a similar ban ran from 1941 to 1970; in West Germany it was 1955 to 1970.

The Football Association forbade all referees and coaches from working in women’s football, and any club that allowed women to use its pitches would lose its membership. This despite the huge popularity of women’s matches played in the later years of the First World War, when female workers in munitions factories formed teams. In 1920, teams from England and France played each other in front of 20,000 – the first “international” match - and on Boxing Day the same year 53,000 attended a women’s game at Everton’s Goodison Park, with many more locked out.

Meg Rapinoe was one of the American World Cup team to tweet her delight at Blatter's shock announcement that he was to step down
Meg Rapinoe was one of the American World Cup team to tweet her delight at Blatter's shock announcement that he was to step down ©Getty Images

For nearly half a century women’s football flourished in some unusual places, Hong Kong, Goa and Costa Rica among them, without any input from FIFA or the Continental Federations. There were World Cup tournaments - invitation only, like the first men’s event in 1930 - and the final of the Copa Mundial in Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium in 1971, between Mexico and Denmark, drew a crowd of 110,000. That is the highest attendance in sporting history for a women-only contest.

Men occasionally made pronouncements against female players during these decades of banishment and neglect by the male football world. It started in 1922 when The Lancet, the renowned British medical journal, published research on girls and young women playing sport. It was good for them physically, emotionally and morally, said the report - except for football, which caused “too much strain” on female bodies.

An official from the Nicaraguan FA was outraged, on a visit to the United States in 1956, by the sight of women playing the game. There were about 20,000 regular players in the USA at the time and he wrote to FIFA to demand they put a stop to it, despite the fact that FIFA had no jurisdiction over them.

In 1961 Costa Rica’s national team were denied entry to Colombia because their shorts were deemed a threat to morals. Blatter would have been intrigued: four decades later he famously said the women’s game might be more marketable if players wore tighter shorts.

The discrimination has continued since FIFA’s involvement, as Belloli’s comments showed. In England in 1999 a case ended up in court when Vanessa Hardwick failed her UEFA A licence, a highly valued coaching qualification, despite having higher marks than several men who passed. Even after the ruling went in her favour, the FA paid her damages and a £10,000 ($15,000/€13,000) levy rather than give her the licence.

And who led the fight for recognition and equality? FIFA, and especially Blatter and his predecessor as president, Joao Havelange, claim much of the credit. There have been significant changes under both men. But the most effective work has been done by a few individuals, some of them very wealthy, and all of them women. 

In Nigeria there was Princess Bola Jegede, a fabulously wealthy businesswoman who funded the inaugural national competition in 1990, from which Nigeria’s first World Cup team was selected. She also backed a team, the Jegede Babes that produced many top players, and later became the first female official on the Nigerian FA.

There was a similar story in Egypt, where personal wealth again played a part as Dr Sahar El-Hawary created the base from which the game has grown. She had 25 players staying at her own home in the early 1990s, on “permanent camp”, when there was no women’s football in Egypt.

“I kept going for five years at my home, my father’s villa,” she said. “No one accepted us, no club, nothing.  There were no pitches, no infrastructure. Everyone said it was a crazy idea.”

Her father had an impressive network of business and political contacts and helped his daughter to arrange exhibition matches at festivals and public events. The game took off, with the help of the Sports Minister, and has gone from strength to strength. “Even when players marry now, their husbands will encourage them to play, to referee. That is a revolution,” said El-Hawary. “My next challenge is the schools.”

There have been other personality-led success stories: in Jordan, the hosts of the U17 World Cup next year, in Thailand, whose every move in their World Cup debut in Canada will be eagerly followed on television back home, and in Costa Rica, where women’s football has been popular for decades.

This year's FIFA Women's World Cup in Canada is set to be the biggest in the competition's history
This year's FIFA Women's World Cup in Canada is set to be the biggest in the competition's history ©Getty Images

Another passionate and influential campaigner is Veronica Chan, a 92-year-old Hong Kong businesswoman who had a long-running feud with FIFA. “We call her the angel of Asian football,” said Peter Velappan, former general secretary of the Asian Football Confederation. “Dynamic, full of energy - the last time I saw her she was running and jumping around, same as ever, and that was at her 90th birthday!”

Chan founded the Hong Kong Ladies Football Association in 1965. She spent more than £2.5 million ($3.8 million/€3.4 million) of her own money to promote the Asian Women’s Championship from 1975 until 1991. FIFA staged the first “official” World Cup that year, having been prompted to do so by a personal plea at their 1986 congress by Ellen Wille of Norway.

Chan confronted FIFA and the AFC on many occasions, questioning their right to determine what could and could not happen in the women’s game. Jean Williams, the respected British academic who has written two books on the history of women’s football, said, “I followed a paper trail of letters she wrote to people at FIFA, and she must have driven them mad. I say that because they were so rude to her.”

Chan said she was still passionate about football. “It has been my life,” she said at her home in Hong Kong last month. “My hope is that eventually, women’s football will be governed by women. FIFA is a very male-dominated organisation, and there is much room for improvement.”

Jean Williams agrees. Despite all those numbers from FIFA, she said, football played by women is not making anywhere near enough advances.

Williams laughed at the “30 million players” claim. “They’ll count anyone who even thought of playing,” she said. “Genuine information is very hard to come by.”

The number of registered players is 4.8m, of which half are from the US and Canada. More than 90 per cent of them come from the top 20 nations in the women’s rankings. Recruiting more players is the number one priority of all Continental Federations except South America, where funding is deemed more important.

As American Wambach said, National Federations need to work harder. Persuading their members to take women’s football seriously is high on FIFA’s agenda. “The greater inclusion of women will better support football in its claim of being a truly universal sport,” said a FIFA spokesperson.

Williams said, “It's not about logic, it’s about power and old boys’ networks. It’s no accident that some of the strongest nations for women’s football - the US, China, Norway, more recently Japan and South Korea - are countries without traditionally strong male football cultures.

“As historians we don't accept the myth that women's sport is making progress. Just a series of changes, some of which are not encouraging.

“Female administrators, owners, medical experts, lawyers, player agents, media specialists are all marginalised by the formal and informal processes of world football. So, is it really the global game?”