How My Love of Football Goes Against My Feminism

On Twitter, someone implied that it is impossible to be a feminist and a football fan. It triggered me because I am both. This made me reflect on the reasons I could have stopped being a football fan.  

Girls are discouraged from playing football.

Marva, a 24-year-old woman from England, was reminded of how boys view girls who like to play football. She wrote about how, as a young girl, boys became physical with her whenever she outplayed them. Marva also recalls a recent experience at a park when teenage boys whistled at her while she was kicking her ball. These kinds of experiences can cause girls to stop playing football.

Women are underestimated.

During last year’s Women’s World Cup Piers Morgan described Megan Rapinoe and the USA women’s national team as arrogant. Rapinoe specifically has also been subjected to public insults because she is a lesbian. It is hilariously ironic because men are allowed to flaunt their accomplishments all the time while women are demonised for being successful.

The gender pay gap in sports persists.

Female footballers do not earn as much as male footballers even when they perform better. In the past few years, South Africa and Nigeria’s women’s national team fared significantly better than their male counterparts. Yet they are paid less than the men. The USA women’s national team fight for equal pay is rather public and nasty. As all struggles for equality goes.

Women are objectified in football.

Whenever a football team is losing by a wide margin some fans on Twitter always make sexual analogies. These kinds of tweets often allude to rape. In 2018, the first-ever women’s Ballon d’Or winner, Ada Hegerberg was asked to twerk on live television. It was supposed to be a historic moment. Instead, the host decided to sexualize her rather than celebrate her achievement. However, Hegerberg politely declined his request and later said that it was not inappropriate. For a feminist, these kinds of experiences can stop a girl from being a football fan.

Football, and sports in general, is a way to maintain toxic masculinity.

Some men also fall into the trap of being reduced to their athleticism. Arsenal footballer Hector Bellerin is constantly mocked for his fashion choices. He said that he was even called a “lesbian” for growing his hair out. Bellerin has also been very outspoken when it comes to social and political issues. During the 2006 FIFA World Cup final, Zinedine Zidane head-butted Marco Materazzi after the Italian insulted Zidane’s sister. Zidane got sent off and France subsequently lost the match. His reaction was viewed as disgraceful by fans and the media. It is as if footballers are supposed to conform to a certain type of masculinity.

Change is possible and present.

These are enough reasons to absolutely hate football, but I simply cannot. I am optimistic about the future of women’s football. It starts with investment and representation.

In Europe, some of the top leagues were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ligue 1, in France, was cancelled for both men and women. In England, only the FAWSL was cancelled while the Premier League restarted. In Germany, a solidarity fund was used so that the Frauen Bundesliga could continue. FIFA is expanding the 2023 Women’s World Cup to allow more teams to compete. This is essential for players to get recruited by the top teams and for the overall development of the women’s game.

As the recent socio-political events have indicated, football needs to address its lack of inclusivity. This should not just involve Black men but women and LGBTQI+ people as well. There should be adequate representation at executive, management and federation level.

Yet, football is a means of empowerment for men and women.

Sadio Mané of Senegal escaped his village as a teenager because his parents did not want him to play professional football. He rebelled to follow his dreams and is now a Premier League and Champions League player. How many girls from third world countries like his do not have the opportunities he had access to? Imagine if they did. 

One of the best documentaries I have seen this year is Footeuses: A Documentary on Women’s Football. It was filmed in France and includes stories of mothers, immigrants, working-class and middle-class women. They talk about how they defy expectations, celebrate the sisterhoods they formed and navigate their femininities as football players. 

It reassured me that I can be a feminist and a football fan.

This World Cup is Transforming Attitudes to Women’s Football

I have been a football fan ever since the 2014 FIFA Men’s World Cup. This year, for the first time, I have been watching the Women’s World Cup. It’s not that I haven’t previously wanted to, but the last time a Women’s World Cup was broadcasted in South Africa was 2011.

This year is the first time the South African women’s national team, Banyana Banyana, has ever qualified for the Women’s World Cup. Here are some things I have learnt from watching the tournament so far:

The Speed of the Game

Critics can be quick to describe the women’s game as too slow. With many teams, this is far from what I have observed. I personally think the USA Women’s National Team is as good as Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City team! The only criticism I have is that there should be more investment in players for women’s teams.

The Market

The market is there. Nike recently reported that the USA’s women’s shirts sell better than any other sports shirts. I had absolute chills when I saw the same company’s advert before the World Cup. It was the first time I had ever seen a sports advert with so many powerful women in it.


There are also people who say that tickets don’t sell in the women’s game. One million tickets for the 2019 tournament have been sold. Organizers have admitted that they may have miscalculated and should have used bigger stadiums.

There is a huge pay gap between men and women

Like in many other industries and sports, there is pay inequality between male and female footballers. The prize money for the Men’s World Cup was 38 million dollars. The winners of this year’s women’s tournament will receive 4 million dollars. For someone who loves the beautiful game, this is disappointing. The USA Women’s Team are currently legally challenging their federation against discrimination and demanding to be paid their worth.

The Biggest Positives

What I like most about the women’s game is that it is not overly commercialized – as yet. The footballers are really playing for the love of the game. Women like Brazilian legend Marta, and possible player of the tournament – America’s Megan Rapinoe – are inspiring millions of girls AND boys all over the globe. There are so many female footballers whose voices and stories are not heard as they should be.

The Biggest Let Down

What has frustrated me most about this World Cup has been the refereeing. Many have seemed inexperienced, especially in interpreting the highly complex and controversial Video Assistant Referee (VAR). I hope FIFA and football associations around the world give these women the opportunity to do more refereeing and gain more experience. Why not have female referees for men’s games as well?

Le Grande Finale

The FIFA Women’s World Cup Final takes place on Sunday 7 July 2019. It’s going be a big one. Defending world champions the USA are up against current European champions the Netherlands. I am incredibly excited, and I hope you will be watching too!

Serena Williams is the only Woman on Highest-Paid Athletes List

American tennis player Serena Williams is the highest paid female athlete in the world. She holds 23 Grand Slam titles, and her $89 million in career prize money is twice as much as that won by any other female athlete.

Williams, aged 37, has revolutionized tennis with her unique style of play. Off the court, she is just as successful. In 2014 she founded Serena Ventures, a venture firm investing in founders changing the world with their ideas and products. The firm focuses on funding start ups founded by women, minorities and young people.

In June 2019, Serena became the first athlete to be named on Forbes’ list of America’s Richest Self-Made Women. She also featured on the Power Women 2018 List, and most recently, she was named on the Forbes 2019 World’s Highest-Paid Athletes List.

Williams is the only woman on this list. Of the 100 Highest-Paid Athletes in the world today, 99 are men.

What’s the reason for such a huge disparity? Forbes writer Kim Elsesser argues that the root cause is “a chicken and egg situation. Since women are not paid equally to men, their game is not respected, and therefore less revenue is generated. Since less revenue is generated, female athletes continue to receive less pay.”

In a recent article for the New York Times, Emily Ryall writes about sexism in sport in relation to this year’s Fifa Women’s World Cup. The tournament has seen record-breaking viewing figures and received unprecedented global attention for women’s football.

“Great sport requires only three things: excellence of skill, uncertainty of outcome and a crescendo of drama until the last second. Gender or sex is irrelevant,” writes Ryall.

On the first day of Wimbledon 2019, it’s worth questioning why Serena Williams is the only woman to have made it onto that Forbes list. Our attitudes hold influence. We can all contribute to creating a culture where female athletes are respected and paid according to their skill and success.

He Broke Her Face – But Kept Playing

When the 2014 World Cup finished, I wrote an article for an online youth outlet in the UK calling on men to stop asking women “But how come you love soccer, you’re a girl?” Not only is this attitude outdated, but it is also completely true that women love, watch and play sports as much as men, including those sports traditionally seen as ‘masculine’ – soccer included.

The rather more worrying trend I emphasized though was what emerged since the football tournament in South Africa in 2010 – namely, domestic violence increases significantly during major sporting events and the usual victims tend to be intimate partners: wives and girlfriends. In England, after game losses of the national team, domestic violence tends to increase by up to 25%, the National Centre for Domestic Violence has found out. This may be a direct result of high levels of viewers’ engagement and passion for the game, but may also be due to drinking and betting. Multiple campaigns have so far focused on this issue but sporadic TV ads in the middle of the World Cup or the European Championships may not really be enough.

As soon as the 2014 World Cup finished, domestic violence and its connection to sporting events moved out of the spotlight. Instead of dropping down, the levels of violence rose however, and interestingly, violence increased amongst athletes themselves. A number of worrying reports were released about National Football League players allegedly beating and assaulting women. Joe Mixon, Greg Hardy and Ray Rice were all under fire (with the latter publicly punching his fiancée in an elevator and attempting to drag her out, for which he got an immediate “impressive” punishment of TWO whole games). But that’s not all – in recent years there have been at least 44 NFL players accused of sexual or physical assault. The list is publicly available here.

Now, the NFL condones violence, of course it does, but the alarming rate of players being involved in such dangerous acts against loved ones means more significant steps need to be taken to tackle the problem and not merely condone it. Education should be the first step – educating the players, their coaches and counselors for the dangers of such behavior and for alternative ways of releasing tension, as well as educating women and girls how to empower themselves. And secondly, elites should be ripped off from their privileged status and more severe punishments must be given to deter future acts of aggression. Suspension for a season is merely enough in the case of Joe Mixon breaking a woman’s face in a restaurant. Or multiple other cases recorded here which list the resolutions of the assault cases and more than once conclude with ‘suspended for one game’. One!

All in all, applying clear policies of expulsion in cases of on or off campus aggression in all colleges and non-college settings, and introducing intimate partner violence classes are both musts, in the US and beyond.

We shouldn’t wait for another major event to start talking about sports and violence again, the conversation should never end.

Photo credit: Abilgail Keenan

Don’t Call Me a Tomboy. Call Me an Athlete.

Me and my friends on a ski trip

The Collins American-English Dictionary defines ‘tomboy’ as a girl who behaves or plays like an active boy.

So what does it mean to play ’like a boy?’ Boys enjoy playing with everything from video games to Barbie dolls. Just like girls, boys cannot and should not be stereotyped with specific personality traits. For now, let’s assume playing ‘like a boy’ refers to playing sports (although I will explain why this is a ridiculous assumption).

According to Bonnie Zimmerman, author of Encyclopedia of Lesbian Histories and Cultures, the word ‘tomboy’ has been connected with connotations of rudeness and impropriety since 1592.

What is so rude about a girl who plays sports?  

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Growing up, my peers often referred to me as a tomboy. I heard it so much that, by the time I reached high school, I even used it to describe myself. I eagerly competed in any sport, including gymnastics, swimming, diving, softball, basketball, track, volleyball and/or soccer (just to name a few). And, not to toot my own horn, I did not just play sports, I was good at sports.

In primary school, my physical education teacher always paired me with an athletic boy for our one-on-one basketball drills. In middle school, I played on my school’s girls teams and, in 8th grade, we went undefeated in every sport. In high school, I ran cross country and broke multiple school records.

What I’m trying to say is that girls who enjoy playing sports are not tomboys.

We are athletes.

By playing sports, girls (and boys) develop mental toughness and important social and physical skills along with a heightened sense of accomplishment, confidence, determination, and empowerment. Athletic girls must not be shunned while athletic boys are celebrated.

In 2010, UNICEF partnered with the Bamyan Provincial Department of Women’s Affairs and the local Youth Information and Contact Centre in Afghanistan to promote girls’ empowerment through sport.

Participation in sport is a critical part of any child’s physical and social development, especially for girls. Sport can help improve their self-esteem and self-awareness. Sport teaches integrity and self-management by setting objective standards that girls can work to achieve.” ~ Dr. Atiqullah Amiri, UNICEF

In 2012, the U.S. Department of State unveiled its Empowering Women and Girls Through Sports Initiative. One component of the Initiative involves a partnership with espnW’s Global Sports Mentoring Program. The program matches emerging female leaders from 15 different countries with female top executives in the American sports industry for one month, allowing the young leaders to gain valuable skills necessary to build female sports leagues in their home countries. The Initiative also engages professional athletes, coaches and athletic administrators with underserved youth as well as invites young women and girl athletes to the United States to participate in clinics, team building exercises, and more. Watch former Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton announce the Initiative here.

Sports serve an important role in the dialogue surrounding women and girls’ empowerment – and the world is finally taking note.

Check out these fantastic organizations already working to empower women and girls through sport:

Don’t miss this great film depicting how boxing empowers women in Afghanistan.

Cover image courtesy of Flickr’s Creative Commons.