“Didn’t you read that male and female, Our Lord created them? Then why, men, are you watching the female soccer cup?”
That’s the kickoff of a column by an Italian journalist on the pages of Il Foglio, one of the Mediterranean country’s best reputed center-right newspapers. The title, towering over the picture of the match that saw Norway triumph against South Korea, is telling: “Poke a hole in the female players’ soccer ball.” The subheading? “The Female World Cup is against nature, let’s tell things how they are.”
The 2019 World Cup has seen millions throughout the world tune in to follow the adventures of national teams as they move from stadium to stadium in pursuit of the highly coveted final prize. Meanwhile, many international commentators seem to be playing in their own championship—working hard to take home the 2019 Hottest Sexist Take on Soccer Award™.
The Italian journalist writing that championships such as the World Cup force girls to watch unnatural models of strength and ambition is not alone.
There’s the TV journalist who began his voice over of a scene of a player placing the ball on the pitch, shown on one of France’s most viewed news programs, by saying, “Their gestures are so delicate, their fingers so thin, that some people might wish they were the ball.”After implying many would wish they could be caressed by a female player, he continued, “This light footwork has them crocheting on the field, just like the boys.” His tone and word choice sparked controversy about the paternalism pervading his commentary on social media.
"Une maille à l'endroit, une maille à l'envers." La coupe du monde féminine de foot vue par… le JT de Pernaut pic.twitter.com/i1bgILG7yG
— Manuel Vicuña (@M_Vicuna) June 18, 2019
French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo—well known for its controversial approach to anything, from religion to politics—doubled down by slapping the caricature of a vagina penetrated by a soccer ball on its cover. “We’re gonna eat it up this month” the first page read, stirring up comments on the blatant reduction of women to their sexual organs and the dehumanization it implied.
Italian politician Cristian Panarari also played the sexualization card when he posted a picture of a woman player’s ass to his Facebook followers, writing “Athletic training makes all the difference for this World Cup . . . Go, Azzurre! Give Italians some magical nights ;).”
French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut raised quite a few eyebrows when, while interviewed on CNews, the second most watched news channel in the country, he stated that he didn’t enjoy women’s soccer because “that’s not the way I want to see women.” “What else are you going to ask of me? To watch an all-female boxing match, and then a female rugby match? I don’t want to,” he added. Italian journalist Massimo Fini, writing for right-wing paper Il Giornale, mirrored Finkielkraut’s dislike by penning an entire column on how soccer is nothing but a metaphor for war and, as we all clearly know, women are bearers of life who can’t help but reject conflict—and are therefore a better fit for “less physical” sports, like volleyball.
That sexism stifles the coverage and discussion around women’s soccer is not news.
After all, the head of coordination for women’s football in Brazil at the 2015 World Cup, Marco Aurélio Cunha, commented on his team’s progress by saying, “We used to dress the girls as boys. So the team lacked a spirit of elegance, femininity. Now, the shorts are a bit shorter, the hairstyles are more done up. It’s not a woman dressed as a man.” Systemic sexism stretches back even further. When a 1961 documentary on women’s soccer resurfaced in Spain in March 2019, people were shocked to hear the commentators nonchalantly remarking, “The only positive note is that when, and if, the players finally get married, they’ll abandon the game for pots and pans.”
After being banned outright from playing the sport for decades, the women playing in this World Cup are still fighting an uphill battle, struggling to be paid (Italy, for example, still hasn’t legalized professional women’s soccer), and fighting against tired tropes. These players, however, haven’t stood by and watched as some tried to drag them down. The German national team, for instance, launched a badass video campaign set to the slogan “We don’t have balls—but we know how to use them!” ahead of the 2019 World Cup, calling out the fact that they play for a country that barely knows who they are, despite having been European champions eight times. “When we’re looking for role models, we just have to look into the mirror,” the narrator emphasizes. “We want to play our own game to our own beat.”
If only someone would explain this to commentators shooting their mouths about the one of the most followed Women’s World Cups ever —perhaps using blackboards and chalk to draw a few diagrams.