Cape Town — Many are waiting with bated breath for 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil when 352 men will compete for a whooping US$35 million in prize money. Over 1.1 million tickets are expected to be sold to fans - almost the same number who gathered in Germany for the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup...
Financial woes for women's football
If you are tempted to think that the prize money in women's football is proportional to that of men's, you could not be more wrong. During the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup, 176 women competed for a meagre US$7.6 million. Even accounting for FIFA's playbook which provides for 16 female teams and 32 male teams in their respective World Cups, shouldn't the prize money in women's football be at least half that of the men's?
Media coverage of women's football is also much lower than that of men's, and a similar trend can be observed across most sports. This may explain why female soccer stars do not have the same level of celebrity and status as male football players (I challenge you to name ten world class female soccer players without using Google). This media bias also works to negatively influence the level of corporate sponsorship for women's football. And so the cycle continues...
Unsurprisingly, most national football teams for women have financial struggles. For instance, the current financial support for women's soccer teams in Jamaica is so dismal that an online crowd funding initiative has been launched to try and get them to the 2015 World Cup qualification tournaments. As of April 2014, they had not even reached 10 percent of their target.
FIFA's failure to use its massive finances to radically transform the game tacitly endorse a worldview that suggests that women's soccer is not as valuable - in all senses of the word - as men's.
Questions about the gender status of female players
The challenges for women's football go very much beyond financial constraints. Gender norms, which discourage women and girls from playing the game, still persist. In some societies, women who take part in a sport that is believed to be for men are seen to be challenging their society's views on femininity and masculinity. In Iran, female national soccer players were required to undergo 'gender tests' after the discovery that several players in the team were in fact biologically male. Closer to home, the Nigerian Football Federation publicly questioned the gender status of a player in the Equatorial Guinea women's team after the 2010 African Women's Football Championship. These cases provide clear examples of public perceptions about how female sport should be played.
The gender challenge in women's football extends to other stigmas around sexuality. In countries such as Nigeria, where homosexuality is both frowned upon and illegal, the danger of being a lesbian soccer player - or being seen to be a lesbian - is very real. The Nigerian national women's football coach, Ngozi Uche, was quoted in 2011 as saying that she had tried to use religion to rid the team of homosexuality. As a result, soccer becomes an avenue through which the prevailing gender status quo is reinforced despite efforts by women to break down these gender barriers.
It is clear that public interest in women's football is growing. However, FIFA and some countries are not reflecting this through investment. In doing so, football's 'powers-that-be' have created a negative feedback loop where they ignore the value of investing in women's soccer while reinforcing the idea that women's soccer should be played in a feminine manner by feminine women.
There's a reason why they don't call it FIFA Men's World Cup. They simply don't have to because it's assumed to be men's.