The EM proves that women’s football is not like men’s football – and that’s a good thing | Jens Offord
In 2015 I interviewed Chelsea FC Women manager Emma Hayes. The interview got off to a bad start when I asked her the seemingly innocent question, “Can women ever achieve equality with men?” The women’s game is still a long way from catching up with men, she told me.
Seven years later, that’s still the case (but they also had a 50-year head start – more on that later). But what really seemed to frustrate her was the constant comparisons I felt with men’s football. Couldn’t we “guess [women’s football] standalone,” she asked, still recognizing it as a “great product”?
As a young and idealistic reporter, I had trouble understanding Hayes’ point of view. Surely that was internalized misogyny? Women’s football was growing in popularity, so why should its players be thankful they were paying London living expenses when male footballers were taking home up to £200,000 a week?
But over time I began to understand what she meant. It makes sense to recognize women’s football as a separate product because it is a different product and in that respect it offers different possibilities. First of all, women’s football has not been corrupted by money or mired in allegations of misconduct or toxic fan culture, and we can prevent it from going in the same direction as men’s football.
It’s also undeniably a more family-friendly environment, and it’s a delight to see so many young women and girls in the crowds flocking to the Women’s Euro. For example, I would be surprised to find such fans drunk at a women’s soccer game that they ended up falling on the people in the line in front of them, like I experienced at the 2019 League One play-off final.
This year’s Women’s Euro has seen record after record broken in attendance and attendance and at the moment women’s football is an unstoppable force at international level. The quality and talent displayed throughout the tournament was immense, not least that of the Lionesses in their 4-0 semi-final win over Sweden. Sure, there were some less exciting games, but let’s not pretend that the same can’t be said of men’s football.
Since the re-launch of the professionalised Women’s Super League in 2017 – a move, some argue, aimed at embarrassing some of England’s top clubs into making a public commitment to women’s football – some have embraced the “#oneclub” – Approach developed: if you value your club, you value all teams in it equally.
In theory it’s a nice idea if fans actually sign up, but let’s not pretend that football is a sport with equal opportunities for men and women – we need to play the games against each other to recognize these differences.
It also means that the difference between men’s and women’s football is less valued – “#NotWomensFootball” is what Volkswagen says at the tournament this summer, but why not? By positioning women’s teams as something of an offshoot of big Premier League clubs, we don’t really encourage people to value them as a ‘great product’ in their own right and there are some aspects of men’s football that we wouldn’t really want to emulate.
That means there is no perfect solution. Treating women’s football as a separate product also opens it up to the heavy weight of expectations placed on women in society. Why is women’s football considered more ‘family friendly’? Because women are softer? Less prone to berating, berating and berating the referee? (Just ask Spain’s Misa Rodriguez.) Even at this year’s Women’s Euro, commentators have claimed it’s unusual for women players to behave like this.
You only have to look at the criticism the Arsenal women players received when they traveled to Dubai in January 2021 at the height of the Stage 4 Covid restrictions to see how we view women players. We simply expect more from them than from their male colleagues. They’re expected to act as ambassadors for the game, rather than just rocking out with a Gucci wash bag and a pair of AirPods, playing soccer and jogging again.
However, the undeniable elephant in the room when it comes to women’s football, and one of the main problems with the ‘one-club’ approach, is that women still take home a tiny fraction of what male players at comparable levels earn and are in What they invest in women’s game is far inferior. Paradoxically, this seems to be the very reason why women’s football is favored by some and also why women’s and men’s football are never equally revered. Men rage on social media that “WOMEN CANNOT FILL STADIUMS,” which may be true, but little is being done to address the reasons why.
In 1921, the FA voted to ban women’s football, describing the game as “rather unsuitable for women”. Just a year earlier, women’s football celebrated a record-breaking success when 53,000 fans turned out for a Boxing Day match at Goodison Park. It took 92 years for this attendance record to be broken. The legacy of this ban, coupled with today’s male-centric roster, means that the best women’s teams are beholden to the goodwill of their male overlords. Just look at how Charlton Athletic Women were sacrificed to budget cuts in 2006 after the men’s side were relegated from the Premier League.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. “There are radical ways to rethink women’s football,” Prof Jean Williams, author of The History of Women’s Football, tells me, citing the US National Women’s Soccer League‘s Angel City franchise, a club that was founded by women – Hollywood star Natalie Portman – no less – in 2020 as a standalone women’s club. “But that doesn’t happen here – women’s football is a sub-brand of men’s football.”
The big question for FA, Uefa and Fifa to ask is whether women’s football is a money-making business, a box to tick, or whether they – and the men’s teams who benefit from a longstanding patriarchal structure – are one too have a moral obligation to continue developing women’s football, even if this involves initial costs.
Jen Offord is the producer and host of the Standard Issue podcast and the author of The Year of the Robin