(Henceforth, let’s just call it the World Cup)
Welcome to the summer edition of the Impact newsletter, dedicated to feminism and football in celebration of the 2023 Women’s World Cup. We’ll be covering the highs and lows of the beautiful game on the pitch, and the fights for equality on the sidelines. Today, I’m telling you why I love women’s football, and encouraging feminists everywhere to join me. (This is also probably the only time you will see my selfies in this newsletter!)
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For me, it’s been a perfect weekend: one spent watching football.
I love football. I have loved it my whole life, whether I was squeezed next to my dad and brother on the sofa cheering for the English men’s team, or standing on the sidelines watching my beloved but truly terrible lower division team lose on a rainy day in Stoke-on-Trent, or sitting up until four in the morning in a Melbourne pub, willing the football gods to smile upon my side playing on the other side of the world (they didn’t).
When the French men’s team won the 2018 World Cup, I splashed in the fountain at République, howling with delight alongside the delirious football fans of my newly adopted country. The last truly good time I remember before the pandemic was watching Alex Morgan and Wendie Renard light up the Parc des Princes at the 2019 World Cup. One of the first times things felt better after it was the moment when the English women’s team won the 2022 Euros, and I ran to the supermarket for emergency champagne and wept in my living room because football had finally come home.
But football has not always loved me back.
I grew up at the height of 90s lad culture in the UK — think Oasis, binge-drinking and a general miasma of chauvinism and homophobia. As comedian Esther Manito put it: “We weren’t allowed feminism in the 90s. We had the Spice Girls.”
This was when football hooliganism was at its peak, and girls had to learn to love the game in spite of what the culture was telling them about their place in the world. As a girl, I would have to demonstrate over and again that I was a “true” fan of the game, listing off players and being forced to explain the offside rule to prove I understood it. (The idea that women can’t understand the offside rule is a pernicious cliché, to the extent that it’s the second result when searching for an explanation on Google. In fact, it’s really easy to understand — here’s a simple guide if you’re not sure!) No boy I knew had to pass a general knowledge quiz to enjoy football.
Most of all, unlike my brother, I was never given the opportunity to learn how to play. No great loss for the beautiful game, but to this day, I identify the gaping hole at the heart of my football fandom — how can I love a sport so much without ever knowing what it’s like to score a goal or land a tackle? (If any subscribers want to teach me how to play football, I am here for it!)
Back then, women’s football was seen as little more than a joke. Women had only been permitted to play officially two decades before. The UK was one of many countries to ban the women’s game for much of the 20th century, not because the players weren’t good enough, but because they were too good. The Football Association barred women from playing shortly after more than 50,000 people turned up to a game in 1920. The French Federation of Women’s Sports Societies had organised the first women’s international competition the same year, but by 1941, the Vichy regime had restricted the game to men. (Discrimination continues today: women and girls who wear a hijab cannot play in official competitions in France. Shout out to Les hijabeuses for taking the fight to the courts.)
Football culture has long been hostile to girls, hostile to queer people, and hostile to people of colour. But things are changing, and this is nowhere more evident than in the women’s game.
Today, much as I might love to watch it, men’s football is riven with problems. Racism is still horrifyingly common. Players are eye-wateringly overpaid, and some are given multiple millions not to play at all. Many games are too expensive for most people to attend, and crowds can be uncomfortable spaces for anyone who isn’t a straight, white, man. Homophobia is institutionalised to the extent that the first international male player to come out as gay was the Czech Republic’s Jakub Jankto … this year. In 2023!
Compare that to the current Women’s World Cup, where 87 out players are taking the pitch, including two of the best footballers ever to play the game: Brazil’s record-breaking Marta, who is appearing in her sixth competition, and the iconic Megan Rapinoe of the US. Quinn, who plays for Canada, was the first trans non-binary athlete ever to win a gold medal at the Olympics — go Quinn!
Many of the players are also seasoned feminist campaigners. They have had to be. The Argentinian, Australian, Canadian, Danish, Nigerian and Spanish teams have all protested for better working conditions and equal opportunities, often at great personal cost. In 2019, Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, then the best player in the world, did not compete at the World Cup because of an equality dispute. Not to mention the entire US team, which won a historic equal pay deal with the men’s team in 2022 after a long fight.
The bravery of Zambia’s players cannot be underestimated — not only have they had to endure their star player Barbra Banda being barred from previous competitions over questions about her gender, but one unnamed player has come forward with allegations of sexual assault against their coach, Bruce Mwape, on the eve of the competition. Most players have not been paid for two years.
Today, I’ll be yelling for Argentina as they take on Italy and try to overcome one of the biggest gender gaps in football. Two-thirds of the team have had to use holidays or unpaid leave to compete in 2023, despite the men’s side earning €37 million for winning the men’s World Cup last year.
We should not romanticise discrimination and abuse in football, but we can support the women and trans people who have overcome so much just to play the game they love, and who are making the path easier for the players who come after them.
And people may still tell you that women’s football isn’t as good as men’s, but now we’ve got the data to show otherwise: a recent study showed that spectators rate men and women players equally when their gender is blurred. Sorry misogynists, but that’s just science.
This summer, I am cheering for all three of my countries — England, Australia and France. But more than that, I am cheering for a new kind of feminist football. I encourage you to join me, even if you think you don’t like football, or you don’t have a place there. In 2023, no one should have to hear that football is not for them. You don’t need to be straight, cis, white or male to be part of the fun. You don’t have to understand all the rules or know all the players and you don’t need to have played yourself.
The Women’s World Cup is one of the most joyous events in the world. All of human passion and drama is contained within 90+ minutes of play, and all anyone needs to do to take part is to show up.
Football is for everyone, and that includes you.
The best of the World Cup so far…
New Zealand vs Norway: 1-0
Australia vs Ireland: 1-0
Nigeria vs Canada: 0-0
Philippines vs Switzerland: 0-2
Spain vs Costa Rica: 3-0
US vs Vietnam: 3-0
Zambia vs Japan: 0-5
England vs Haiti: 1-0
Denmark vs China: 1-0
Sweden vs South Africa: 2-1
Netherlands vs Portugal: 1-0
France vs Jamaica: 0-0
What I’m reading
Megan Rapinoe Won’t Go Quietly — TIME Magazine
The Morocco Women’s Team Has Already Won — The New York Times
The Curse Stalking Women’s Soccer — The New York Times
In partnership with The Gender Beat, we are launching a new report — Gender is Part of Every Story: The Global Landscape of Gender and Feminist Journalism — at a live online event on July 27 at 14:00 Paris time.