The Kickoff: The women of the 2019 FIFA world cup
The German team was given a tea-set after they won their first title; now they demand equal pay. FIFA Women’s World Cup exposes gender disparities like nothing else.
I learned to appreciate sports, especially football, from my father. Suspending self-imposed TV hour-restrictions during football seasons, he sat with us at unusual hours watching telecasts of international tournaments. He would explain rules, recall special moments from football history (I suspect he has extended sports memory), and patiently answered our naive questions. His love for the sport was contagious. We, his children, were addicted even before we realised it.
PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 10: The tattoos of Lorena Benitez of Argentina after the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France group D match between Argentina and Japan at Parc des Princes on June 10, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Catherine Ivill - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
Last week, when I asked him about the team he was supporting in the FIFA World Cup, he was flabbergasted. Confused moments passed before he bleakly managed, “There’s this ICC Cricket World Cup that’s underway; why are you speaking of football? That’s next year.”
Kumi Yokoyama of Japan is tackled by Aldana Cometti of Argentina during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France group D match between Argentina and Japan at Parc des Princes on June 10, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
I wouldn’t blame this 74-year-old. Despite a weak heart and blinding eye issues, he still checks TV schedules from the newspaper and stays up for nightly games of world football.
My father is a victim of strong media biases present globally. In India, right now, this bias has eclipsed the ongoing FIFA Women’s World Cup in France, with only one HD channel live telecasting the matches. This is a loss for all of us, collectively, because women’s sports, be it football, cricket, or golf, isn’t only about sport or entertainment. Women’s sports capture an entire gamut of social justice and human rights aspects. Examples? Where do I even start?
REIMS, FRANCE - JUNE 11: Players of the USA during the anthem prior to the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France group F match between USA and Thailand at Stade Auguste Delaune on June 11, 2019 in Reims, France. (Photo by Daniela Porcelli/Getty Images)
According to the current format of the Women’s World Cup championship, football-playing national teams fight to secure a position in the top 23 slots over a three-year qualification phase, while the host nation enters the championship automatically. In the past week, after the inauguration on June 7, all 24 teams across the six groups have played their first matches, and as you read this, have started their seconds. So far, the tournament’s major upset happened when the Argentine women stopped the Japanese in their tracks, drawing the match goal-less, and earning a point: their only point in any World Cup match in all these years and three appearances.
GRENOBLE, FRANCE - JUNE 09: Cheyna Matthews of Jamaica looks on during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France group C match between Brazil and Jamaica at Stade des Alpes on June 09, 2019 in Grenoble, France. (Photo by Naomi Baker - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
Diego Maradona’s Argentina might have a glorious football past, but their women footballers have had to fight the most terrible battles that they are not quite done with. Women’s football in Argentina wasn’t recognized until 1990; women playing football was considered taboo. Footballers still do not get paid by their clubs; rather the players have to pay a fee to be able to play competitions, and the national team members work menial jobs to earn their livelihood. The country does not have a professional women’s tournament yet, although they might earn one after this World Cup appearance. In March this year, finally, the Argentine Football Association (AFA) expressed interest in building a countrywide professional women’s football league.
GRENOBLE, FRANCE - JUNE 09: Konya Plummer of Jamaica and Marlo Sweatman of Jamaica battles for possession with Cristiane of Brazil during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France group C match between Brazil and Jamaica at Stade des Alpes on June 09, 2019 in Grenoble, France. (Photo by Naomi Baker - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
The women’s team returned to the game in 2018, after a two-year hiatus caused by internal issues with their own football association. The AFA had refused to finance the women’s team, resulting in a no game, no coach scenario that lasted two long years.
The first set of professional women's football contracts were signed as late as April 2019. For the Argentinean women footballers, this was a historic moment. And all thanks go to 27-year-old Macarena Sánchez, who sued the AFA and her former club, demanding payment she deserved for the seven years she played for them. “There are so many players who retired without being able to be professionals. This battle has gone on for a long time,” said Sánchez later to The Guardian.
JUNE 12: Asisat Oshoala #8 of Nigeria beats goalkeeper Minjung Kim #18 of the Korea Republic during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France group A match between Nigeria and Korea Republic at Stade des Alpes on June 12, 2019 in Grenoble, France.
The current Argentine World Cup squad includes only nine professional footballers. Opening the scorebook with the first point earned, Argentina has only started their journey with their first match. Agreeing with the England midfielder Keira Walsh that it’s indeed inspiring and humbling to see these women fight it out on and off the field, against every kind of adversity, I am hugely hopeful for them. The bots are saying that they’ll prove heavy in their next against England, and I won’t be surprised if they do. Look out for 22-year-old Milagros Menéndez who performed incredibly well against US university teams before the World Cup. Tall, quick, dynamic, and with a cunning sense of football, she is supposed to be one of the rising stars. Keep an eye on left-wing Estefania Banini who wears jersey number 10; people say she resembles Diego Maradona and plays like Lionel Messi. She doesn’t agree, even though we saw how bravely she played to ensure her team’s draw against Japan.
NICE, FRANCE - JUNE 09: Nikita Parris of England celebrates with team mates during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France group D match between England and Scotland at Stade de Nice on June 9, 2019 in Nice, France. (Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images)
In the Group F matches, after defeating Thailand 13-0, the defending champions were heavily criticised for their exaggerated celebrations. It was inappropriate behaviour considering the US team was playing against one of the weakest teams, Thailand, critics said. In their second appearance, however, Thailand doesn’t look weak at all. In fact, they are considered the most successful football team in Southeast Asia after bagging an AFC Women's Asian Cup, four AFF Women's Championship titles, and five Southeast Asian Games gold medals. I’d root for them.
Alex Morgan, who scored five of the 13 goals for the US team, is one to follow this World Cup. An Olympic gold medalist, she co-captains her team alongside Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe and is also a University of California, Berkeley, graduate. No World Cup team, men or women, have ever scored 13 goals so far. With five, Morgan ties with Michelle Akers' previous 1991 World Cup record for maximum goals scored in a single game.
Keep an eye on Carli Lloyd, and remember her still astonishing and unbelievable goal-sailing shot from the halfway line against Japan in 2015. She scored a hat trick in that final.
The US team’s fabulous performance would probably help their demands for equal pay as twenty-eight members of the team are suing their football authority for gender discrimination. Discriminatory conduct against women footballers is nothing new or singular – it’s everywhere; even in FIFA. The Australian footballers’ union has accused the international governing body of "discriminatory conduct" in awarding teams at the Women's World Cup a tiny fraction of the prize money compared to the amount given to the men.
NICE, FRANCE - JUNE 12: Maren Mjelde of Norway makes a break during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France group A match between France and Norway at Stade de Nice on June 12, 2019 in Nice, France. (Photo by Hannah Peters - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
Norway is probably the only country that offers equal compensation to its men and women footballers, thanks to Ada Hegerberg, considered the best woman footballer on the planet. The accomplished player stopped playing for her national team in 2017 saying she didn’t agree with the way women's football is treated in Norway, and that it’s not only about money. We agree, and we will miss her grace this time, with Norway already stumbling.
Speaking of Japan, they were the Champions in 2011 and finalists in 2015 when the USA women sought their sweet revenge over them. They have a formidable team this time as well. I’m rather suspicious though, considering their first match, and would closely monitor their next against Scotland today (June 14) and England (June 19).
Follow Jamaica and Nigeria, for football is not only a sport for them. Neither is cricket, for that matter. “It’s a bridge to cross over from poverty to modest living, from a rotten life to a cleaner one,” a Nigerian coach-friend once told me, referring to their use of the sports to help young people cope against poverty and recover from various addictions.
All 24 teams in the 2019 Cup have their own trajectory of courage and tenacity apart from their talent and skill with the ball, and they teach us all a handful of lessons. Win or lose, let’s cheer for them, for simply being there, braving apathy, discrimination, humiliation, and all there is for rebelling women to go through. Like the German girls said in their FIFA world cup advert, “We don’t have balls, we know how to use them.” My dad agrees.
Match schedule: https://www.fifa.com/womensworldcup/matches/