If there’s a subject that is ironically hard to tackle, it’s qualifying opinions. Obviously, ideas exist beyond the realm of opinion; these are called facts and their meaning should be clear by now. We should no longer accept the false equivalency that racist, sexist, or homophobic remarks can be passed off as an “opinion,” as something as simple as “chocolate is delicious.” After all, when it comes to the truth, we have scientists writing articles and presenting lectures on the realities their findings demonstrate. In the same way, we now have plenty of analysts using cold hard figures to show us which teams and which players are better. However, when it comes to football, or any sport, its main purpose isn’t to educate the fans. As a result, while it would be lovely if players or clubs actually defended social causes (in a way shaped by the facts they’ve learned and the truths they’ve seen revealed), they don’t have to. And sometimes, when they do elect to hold up a certain ideal, their words or actions are reprehensible.
This piece has been a long, long time in the making. It began to take shape last summer, when the Argentina women’s team headed to France. From May to August of 2018, during the team’s qualifiers, there was a possibility Argentina might make abortion access legal for all, rather than restricting it to cases involving rape and risk to the woman’s physical or mental health. Ultimately, the law didn’t pass the senate, but during the process, while the male players in the Argentina men’s national team chose to either not respond publicly or be openly opposed to the issue, the women’s national team gradually grew more vocal, culminating in chants supporting legalization in the first leg of the playoff against Panama. In other words, while the men were actively playing in their World Cup — in other words, when they were in a place of safety; when they were in a place no one would yank their funding — the Argentine men were either silent or arguing in support of the opposition. The women qualified for their World Cup having had the courage to support the bill — somewhat amazingly, considering what we now know about the abuse that team endured — but also watching it fail to be made into law.
Seeing the likes of Lucas Moura and Ronaldinho supporting Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro regardless of his sexist remarks or, hitting closer to home, the reduction of the Ministry of Sports to a secretary, which decreases available funds, in turn decreasing access to the sport for kids who need assistance to be part of a team, is as much of a sad irony as it is an extreme example of how this dissonance between footballers’ gendered perspectives plays out.
This isn’t about providing an answer (because reality has shown there are men that support equality as well as women who continue to uphold the patriarchy; at this point, there certainly aren’t any studies showing the number of footballers that fall on each end of the spectrum). Instead, consider another question: How much can a player’s perspective toward football influence their public political positions? (Silence counts here as well.)
This may not apply as much in the United States, but at least in South America, football is one of those things associated with masculinity. Passing down support for your team by taking your kid to the stadium is a tradition mostly seen with fathers and sons. It’s a lot more likely to see a boy being given a football as a present than a girl. Football academies with girls’ programs are also a recent development; they were essentially nonexistent in Peru eleven years ago. And the question of who has had a professional league since the early 20th century and who is still fighting to get paid is, unfortunately, easy to answer. Argentina, one of the biggest countries in the continent when it comes to football love, is a rather sad picture.
In other words, if a boy is interested in football, he’s not really breaking any societal expectations. He probably shares a team with his dad, watches and comments on matches with him, his grandpa and his uncles, and plays with other boys after school. If he becomes a professional footballer, he’s living the dream—a dream he’s seen reflected across the media he’s consumed since birth.
If a girl is interested, cracks form in the social narrative. Even if she followed her dad into her fandom, her mere presence adds an unusual twist to the tale. Her liking football is something that will likely bring cries of, “You’re not like other girls,” and if she plays, she might be seen as a tomboy instead of as a proper girl with a gentle demeanor, which would be best reflected by her playing with dolls or teacups (because gender roles forbid a girl likes both dolls and football!). If she wants to pursue the game into adolescence, things become even more complicated. If her school’s small, there might not even be a girls’ team. And if she wants to go pro, it’s probably best if she goes to an American college — and the possibility of her doing so depends on her level of privilege. That is, if she even considers going pro a possibility. When women can’t watch other women playing the game, and the media shares little about them doing so, it’s likely many young, talented girls won’t even dream of taking such a path.
In most countries, if you want to watch women’s football, you have to go out of your way to do so—provided there’s a broadcast. Meanwhile, it’s easy to catch at least some men’s games on public television, though it does depend on both your geographical position and changing views regarding the value of football broadcasting. I was fortunate enough last year to study in France for a semester (and yes, I did attend a Women’s World Cup game!) and was surprised to see the extent to which both the local Ligue 1 and UEFA Champions League were broadcast on paying packages beyond basic cable. This problem, either hotly debated or somewhat mellowed by showing certain local games on public broadcast and most on basic cable channels in the Global South, is a non-issue in the First World. However, what didn’t exist in the usual broadcasts that France did have on either public TV or basic cable packages were competitions like the UEFA Women’s Champions League. On the one hand, having such tournaments simply available for broadcast is a step in the right direction. On the other hand, inclusion in pricier packages indicates an expected return on investment from the other competitions (including, while not the cups, the local first division) that women’s football still hasn’t got for the suits.
To put it simply: Men in football fit within the culture. Women are trying to break into it.
Breaking one cultural norm can lead to further questioning about others. You like this sport, why shouldn’t you? — it’s fine; the patriarchy endorses your choice to do so, although it is likely many members of it will question your belonging in the group. But the subversive liking of a sport dominated by men could open doors, including the idea that maybe, pregnancy should be a choice. Maybe we should be able to decide upon the state of our bodies (because yes, pregnancy does affect a woman’s body; it’s not just about motherhood in terms of raising a child). Maybe this is why the Argentina women took the stance they did.
Loving football could lead you to think the culture we’ve been taught isn’t exactly right. Girls are taught to think that their games should be as gentle as can be, with baby dolls a good example (as well as practice for their future as mothers). Well, playing football is far from gentle, but it doesn’t make anyone any less of a girl. In time, and with further thinking and experience, the future doesn’t seem so set in stone. As more and more people accept women into the game — as players and as fans — their views on what the “correct” female traits are may change. More will realize womanhood is far more than reproductive ability, and that women shouldn’t base their value on it. Any decision they make regarding their reproductive system, and for whatever reason they make it, doesn’t make them any less of a woman.
Come to think of it, the reason why many lesbian football players are out and proud, while their male counterparts remain silent, could stem from this idea that being different makes them “less of a woman.” Just by playing the game, these players have already cast aside one gender role they were expected to fulfill, and they know it didn’t make them any less of a woman. For men, meanwhile, coming out about their sexuality could be their first “transgression” against societal norms. Guys playing football are not deviating from any societal expectation, and players like Ivan Rakitić have no problem upholding and enforcing strict “male” standards. Sexuality doesn’t make you any less of a woman or man, but it can be harder to understand that if you’ve never done anything “non-girly” or “non-manly.”
When you fit within society’s standards, either racially, economically or by virtue of your genitals, it’s harder to question its cultural norms. There’s no reason to think something might be off if you’ve never noticed how inadequate it feels. As someone who passes as white in her home country and grew up upper-middle class, it took me until college to realize that hey, maybe some things aren’t such a given. Although I had a few feminist beliefs at the time, they weren’t as strong and as inclusive as the ones I hold now. I would have believed having more women in power to be good enough, without considering that without taking actions and promoting policies that actually empower women and other disadvantaged communities, it would be all for naught (think Margaret Thatcher). Mild spoilers for 2020 Oscars Best Picture winner Parasite, but around its third act, a rich character comments on how nice the weather is after a massive downpour, without even considering that same event led people in the poor districts to lose their homes. The character is far from evil, but simply cannot fathom a reality beyond her own. That was teenage me, and in many ways it represents the environment I come from, even if we were never as rich as the Parks.
I can’t imagine how it feels for men, but we have examples of their seemingly fractured views of feminism. Paulo Dybala can support Thelma Fardin online (she sued fellow actor Juan Darthés for raping her when she was a minor) and then upload happy pictures with Cristiano Ronaldo. He also kept quiet during the abortion debate. Keep in mind he’s one of the most outspoken allies in the international football sphere. Luckily, there are no other known cases of allies sharing cheerful locker room photos with players whose actions go against their publicly-stated values.
By no means is this supposed to be deterministic. Having certain genitals does not shape a person’s attitude toward the world or the values they adopt. There wouldn’t be anti-feminist women if so, nor legitimate male allies. However, the persistent divide could be a reason why certain questions we ask of ourselves, and intentional decisions to deviate from the ways we were raised, are easier to ask and to answer than others.
It would certainly be nice to see strong voices on the big stage, considering how even in sport we can’t afford to ignore politics as we seemed to be able to afford to do before (because progress is inevitable! There’s a black president in the United States, the European Union is strong!). The strongest voices amplifying values feminists hold dear tend to come from people who have shared, in one way or another, our experiences, or gone through something similar enough to make empathizing easier. And they’re the ones trying to make themselves a space in the world of football. Meanwhile, the people who’ve always been there, the people who have followed the usual plan, keep the focus on their ball, as expected. Maybe they’re scared. Maybe they don’t know how to raise the subject. But there is certainly a difference between having fought against the patriarchy from a very young age in order to reach the stage and having made it there by virtue of toeing the party line. Women in football have broken society’s expectations, and thus advocating for a fairer, more just world seems logical. Men who make it to football’s biggest stages follow the rules, just as they have since childhood, and might just feel they’ll lose everything if they dare show significant support for change. Their friends, their coaches, their loudest supporters and all the suits involved make it abundantly clear, day by day, that this is a possibility.
Speaking of TV rights, it was nice to see that 25 matches of the 2019 Women’s World Cup were openly broadcasted in its home country by TF1, with Canal+ showing all 52 games to its paying customers. The complete players’ list for France was also announced on the former on its 8pm newscast, which speaks to the growing importance given to the game. Argentina was also publicly broadcast, and more games were available through cable via DirecTV. As for Peru, which didn’t qualify, I found no information on whether the women’s World Cup was shown in the country. Which is funny, given I clearly remember watching games from the men’s World Cup being openly broadcast while I was in school, although Peru didn’t qualify until I was in my fifth year of college).