Sports  Women’s Cup shows more than just cleatage

The tournament gains more coverage but continues to fall under the shadow of its male counterpart

Arms strategically placed to conceal their nipples, three members of the French women’s soccer team were photographed nude in German tabloid The Bild over the tagline: “Is this how we should show up before you come to our games?” Similarly, five German players posed naked for Playboy Magazine, saying that they hoped such pictures would “disprove the cliche that all female soccer players are butch.” According to one of the players, “More and more sweet, pretty girls are playing [soccer] who also go shopping and place value on their appearance.”
These desperate attempts to promote the “beautiful game” serve as a sober reminder that women’s soccer does not yet garner the attention that it deserves. And, although the FIFA Women’s World Cup, which took place from June 26 to July 17 in Germany, received an unprecedented level of media coverage, the exposure was a far cry from the soccer mania that gripped the globe for the men’s World Cup last summer.
Take this year’s opening game between Germany and Canada as an example. Germany’s women’s team has won the past two World Cups and five consecutive European championships, giving Germans a reason to watch. FIFA reports that 14.1 million Germans tuned in to watch the match – a new benchmark for televised women’s soccer in their nation. While this figure both sounds, and arguably is impressive, when FIFA “put these figures in[to] context,” noting that “an average of 14.8 million watched Germany v. Serbia at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa,” this figure seems far less exciting. About ten per cent more of the German population watched the men’s game. What’s more, FIFA failed to add that the men’s match took place in the middle of a workday, meaning millions of Germans played hooky from their jobs to watch it.
Perhaps this comparison is unfair and detracts from just how far women’s soccer has come in the last few years. In a sports market in which men’s soccer reigns supreme, the bar may be set so high that even the significant success of this year’s tournament may appear a failure. Fran Hilton-Smith, the Technical Director of Women’s Football in South Africa, thinks that “in many countries” – often those where the sport is most revered – “soccer is still perceived as a man’s sport,” and, accordingly, “sponsors are not keen on [supporting] women.”
On the other hand, she also states that it is important to remember that “women’s soccer is relatively new in FIFA – the first [Women’s] World Cup took place in 1991,” making this year’s their sixth. While it is remarkable that such a young tournament has come so far, the fact that the men’s tournament began six decades before the women’s is a testament to the disparity in the sport. It was also barely seven years ago that the president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, remarked that women could enhance their game by wearing tighter shorts.
However, progress has undeniably been made. This year, with sixteen teams competing for the title and 80 per cent of tickets sold, the Women’s World Cup was a wonderful showcase of how the game has spread. It is no longer the private dominion of the United States, Germany, and Scandinavia. Colombia and Equatorial Guinea were first-time qualifiers. The French team’s passing was skillful and elegant. There was also Brazil’s star player, Marta Vieira da Silva, who has won the FIFA World Women’s Player of the Year award five years running. The Japanese players also had some delightfully rhythmic passing and slick movement.
Indeed, Japan’s triumph provided encouragement for a recovering home nation and the women’s soccer world alike. Hilton-Smith remarks that “even in…South Africa, [where] women’s soccer is still small and amateur,” their sport is “well-supported.”
“We had huge coverage of the Women’s World Cup and all the games were broadcast live on TV!,” she says. The women’s game is clearly becoming more competitive, more globalized, and refreshingly lacks the phantom collisions, theatrical belly flops and exaggerated somersaults that plague men’s matches.
Yet there is still a long way to go. For example, the Nigerian team’s Eucharia Uche made homophobic remarks, claiming that she attempted to rid her squad of lesbian behaviour, calling homosexuality a “dirty issue” and “spiritually and morally very wrong.” Statements like these are a step back for the image of the women’s game and have tarnished the appearance of her Nigerian team. China, a finalist in the 1999 Cup, was a no-show at this year’s tournament. Aside from Marta, Brazil’s play was hardly inspired due to a low number of warm-up matches. Furthermore, Hilton-Smith said that Canadians she met in Germany “knew nothing” about the World Cup which was going on, even though Canada’s team was participating.
Let’s hope that when the Cup comes to Canada in 2015 the women’s game will have continued to make further strides.