They Dreamed, They Dared: Gender Inequalities in The Women’s World Cup
World sports has always exhibited a gender bias - the glass ceiling is real, it is obvious, and it has been hard to break.
When the 2018 FIFA World Cup came about, we all experienced a roller coaster of emotions - from hearing that Messi would not participate in the final, to cheering for Mbappe, public interest ran high throughout the tournament. Contrast that with the 2019 Women’s World Cup underway right now. How many of us are familiar with the players? How many of us feel invested in the outcome of the tournament? How many of us even know if India is sending a team? India had indeed participated, and just FYI - according to FIFA, India’s Women’s team ranking is at 63 out of 155 ranked teams.
In football in particular, women’s participation has been slow to gain traction. The first men’s FIFA World Cup was held in 1930, but it took another 61 years for the Women’s World Cup (WWC) to be founded - as late as 1991. This means that the WWC has been around for less than 27 years, and this edition, held at France, is only the 8th time the WWC has taken place. This tournament of the WWC will see 552 players in 24 teams squaring off against each other over 52 matches from June 7 to July 7. Although a huge event held just like the Men’s World Cup, there are a number of differences that undermine gender equality on the turf. The most obvious difference lies in the issue of prize money.
Prize money is the biggest incentive for any team to participate in the World Cup. In 2018, for the Men’s World Cup in Russia had a total prize money of $400 million. France, the champions, took home $38 million. In contrast, this year, the total prize money for the Women’s World Cup is $30 million, leaving $4 million for the champions to take home. The women’s teams this year, together, are being offered 7.5 per cent of the prize money offered to the men.
Apart from prize money, differences arise along the lines of quality of accommodation offered to the players, as well as the turf offered to them to play on. The men’s teams have never played a World Cup match on artificial turf, but the women’s teams are often relegated to it. Artificial turf has been documented as leading to a greater risk of injury, and causing a longer post-match recovery time.
Multiple players have attempted to bring these inequalities under the limelight. Most notably, Ada Hegerberg, often called “The Best Player in Soccer” (note the gender neutrality here!), has been on strike since 2017. The Norwegian player, and winner of the Ballon d’Or, has refused to play for her national team until the women’s team and men’s team play under equal conditions. Her presence is keenly missed on the pitch this season.
That being said, 2019 has been a year instrumental in paving the way towards greater public visibility. To begin with, the hashtag #WomensWorldCup was trending worldwide on the first day of the tournament - this shows a jump in awareness about the competition, if nothing else. Although the specifics are often lost, a trending hashtag is indicative of the public wanting to seem interested in a particular event. It might be a case of people jumping on the bandwagon, a lazy nod to a sport that they aren’t invested in, but nonetheless, visibility matters. It matters for the young girls on social media who know that there is an avenue for them to exhibit excellence in sports. It matters for the players out there who know that there are millions of viewers across the globe, cheering them on. And it matters for everyone arguing gender equality in sports scheduling and funding - being able to show hard evidence that people care about women’s sports is no laughing matter.
In 2015, 750 million viewers tuned in to watch the WWC hosted by Canada. This broke records, and was the second-highest viewed FIFA competition; second to the Men’s World Cup in 2014 with 3.2 billion viewers. This matters as well - at the end of the day, the profit in any sport lies in sponsorship. For women players to gain as much viewership as the men, and to be offered lucrative sponsorship deals creates greater incentive for participation on the individual level, and greater support on the national level. With the backing of corporate sponsors and national federations, these women could break any number of records in sports. But first, they need to be able to break through the glass ceiling in sports. To put it succinctly, and to quote FIFA : “Football isn’t about what people say you should do. It’s about what you dream, what you decide, and what you dare”.