Featured image: The American and Swedish teams shake hands after their Olympic quarterfinal clash at the Mané Garrincha Stadium in Brazil. Photo: Andre Borges/Agência Brasília; Brasilia, 12 August 2016. (This image is now in public domain)
The most headline grabbing occurrence in women’s football at Rio 2016 was Hope Solo calling the Swedes a “bunch of cowards”. The team USA goalie had earlier posed in a beekeeper’s mask and tweeted a photograph with a caption about how she was going to be fighting the Zika virus when she travelled to Rio. Sentiments were hurt and in the first match that USA played at the Olympics, against Colombia, each time Solo held the ball or kicked it from the penalty box, the Brazilian crowd shouted out ‘Zika, Zika’ at her. In the post-match press conference, when asked about the effect the heckling had on her, Solo shrugged and said that it did not matter to her.
Solo is a rare figure in women’s football – unlike most of the women she plays with and against, she actually makes it to the sports pages of the world’s newspapers. Controversial and hated for her regular rudeness (and domestic assault allegations), Solo is the USA team’s star goalkeeper and even at 35, so unquestioned is her ability at the post that talks of her being an inevitable part of the US squad for Tokyo 2020 are already afoot. Yet for all her natural ability at grabbing attention, Solo was not the only woman in the 12 teams that were competing for women’s football gold, who did something capable of generating more interest than, say, the fact that Germany won the eventual finals or that Sweden unleashed a brand of defensive play that was hitherto unseen in such high levels of competition.
If indeed the women of the World Cup-winning US team are so talented that a nation (that usually views ‘soccer’ as a destination to drive kindergartners to and from) is forced to feel patriotic fervour each time they are on the field, did they not complete a single pass, convert a single goal or do anything at all on the field that demanded attention to rival a rude press conference comment?
The answer is, of course, yes. But I don’t know if they did. Neither do you, because when it comes to the world of women’s football not only is the language of reporting vastly different, the matches simply do not get air time. With the exception of a near perfect telecast of the Olympic matches, there has hardly ever been a time when a women’s league match is aired on Indian TV, let alone aired live.
I am not just protesting the lack of women’s football on TV with the petulance of an idle sports fan. The fact that women’s football matches are not aired creates a cycle which leads not just to ignorance surrounding the women in the sport — making it imperative for post-match reporters to point not to the adapted tiki-taka of the Columbian players but to Solo’s tweets — but also in the abysmal wage gap that women footballers have with men — no matter where they play.
Like every sport under the sun, football, even as one of the simplest sports in the world, is heavily monetised. And like every other sphere under the sun, the women who play it come off worse when it comes to the payment for the play. The USA, one of the few countries in the world that has a football league for women, routinely completes its tournaments for women with budgets that are lesser than the annual wages of NBA players. No matter how many women footballers ESPN puts on their Body Issue covers, or how many Sports Illustrated editions are dedicated to the World Cup winning team of USA 2015, in March of this year the difference in the amount of money being paid to the women and men playing football for the US was so stark in every sphere that five women from the national team went public with their plea of equal pay for equal play.
Joined by Becky Sauerbrunn, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, and Hope Solo, Carli Lloyd broke the no-strike clause of the US football federation and went public with little gems of facts, like one which said that US men get a daily allowance of $75 while on international tour, while the women get $60.
“If I were a male soccer player who won a World Cup for the United States,” wrote Lloyd in an op-ed for The New York Times, “my bonus would be $390,000. Because I am a female soccer player, the bonus I got for our World Cup victory last summer was $75,000.”
All this is keeping in mind that to contrast the US men’s team’s overall tally of zero World Cup victories, the women have won the World Cup thrice since the modern format was introduced in 1991 and have come second and third in the years they have not won.
Back when Lloyd, Solo and their teammates took to the courts, the US federation argued that it is not that the women deserved less, but that the revenue they brought in was far less compared to the men. Now that Solo had been banned for six months over her post-match comments, questions have arisen as to whether the ban was so severe due to her participation in the equal pay strike. And even if viewership is behind pay, it hardly should matter in a country where a women’s World Cup semi-final garnered 20 million more watchers than a group stage match played by the US men in Brazil 2014.
If the USA, with its seemingly inexhaustible funds dedicated to sports can fall in line so magnificently with the rise and fall of the ‘market of football’ when it came to paying women, then other countries are not far behind.
In the lead up to the Olympics, the Colombian women footballers (who held the US team to a first round draw at Rio) had not been paid for four months and the Australian Matildas had ended a lengthy strike-ridden bargain for their federation to pay them more than $21,000. For countries with women’s teams that do not qualify for regular international appearances, like India, there are no ready figures of TV ratings or annual salaries, no news reports of injuries or coach appointments and no endorsement deals. What is common knowledge, however, is that the national women’s team rank 57 while the men’s team is at 152 in the FIFA rankings — a fact that in fact does not point to the comparative superiority of Indian women footballers at all, as there are far fewer nations with women’s teams in the world.
However, instances where a glance at the rankings has resulted in passive bystanders becoming passionate fans of a team are rare. We watch football so that we can pick out our own heroes out of the players on the field. Only if we watch a match do we know where Diego Costa’s notoriety lies, only if we are bombarded with repetitions do we admire the brilliance of players like Juanfran, only if we are shown a true variety do we pick out a Newcastle to support over a Manchester United. For many of us in India, until the very end of the first decade of the 2000s, the EPL meant matches played only by either Chelsea, Liverpool, United or Arsenal. Perhaps more of us would have grown into diehard supporters of Crystal Palace, had we actually known what they play like during the years when we were picking favourites out of a selection we had no hand in picking.
Even with the internet streaming matches, football remains a sport to watch on a television with an air of devotion commanded by a bigger screen. It demands loyalty not just from fans but also from reporters who write as lyrically about Barcelona’s forty-two pass goal as they do about Raneiri’s faith in a striker that his predecessor signed from Fleetwood Town.
When it comes to women in football, articles are happy to draw attention to the pre-match meditation rituals of the women, the roles that their families and partners play from the sidelines and on the quirks that make the women everyday characters. The first video suggestion that is brought up by YouTube when you search for ‘women’s football’ is an unidentified clip on a ‘funny and dirty football fight’. Never mind between which teams or players.
Which brings us back to Solo and her comment on the Swedes having played like a bunch of cowards. In selecting this as the highlight of the Swedish victory over USA in the Olympic quarterfinals, sports writers drew attention to the grand old presence in women’s football – Pia Sundhage. Sundhage is the woman behind the defensive blitzkrieg that the Swedish players led all the way to the finals at Rio. Sundhage was also the woman who coached the USA team to Olympic victory twice and put Solo, Lloyd and the now retired Amy Wambach in roles which they would actualise to win the 2015 World Cup. Since 1992, the one-time Swedish forward has managed teams whose fates she has expertly turned around by capitalising on the inherent strengths of the team. She is also the woman that Solo had targeted in her line about Sweden’s style of not playing bravely enough – a line Pia was quick to brush away as something she did not give ‘a crap about.’
In her cult status as a press conference entertainer, in her ability to get her team to park the figurative bus and keep clean sheets through entire tournaments, in the way in which she depends on the performance of key players whom she holds integral to her game plan and in her exuberance on the sidelines, Sundhage reminds you of one Jose Mourinho. Only, while Mourinho was asked about whether he would sign Zlatan Ibrahimovic even before he was manager of United, at strategic intervals in her 24-year long coaching career, Sundhage is asked if she feels that she is good enough to take the reins of the Swedish men’s team — which would mean being manager to Ibrahimovic — a seemingly unconquerable order for a woman coach.
Amidst the occasional discussion on how Sundhage would have become one of the key figures of football had she coached men, there is a resounding lack of words about her tactics on the field. What millennials have learnt about the likes of Brian Clough or Johan Cruyff simply through the power of the literature surrounding their football, they cannot hope to learn from anecdotes on how Sundhage’s sister loves equestrian sports or from inane lines as ‘Sundhage is at home on the move’.
At any given time in the future, however, the situation of women’s football will be better than it had been before. Here’s hoping we find the words to describe their game with the detail it demands and pick our heroes in women’s football ourselves.