The 2019 Women’s World Cup in France is already on its way to being the most successful edition of the event ever. Though the tournament is still in the group stages, it is already breaking viewership records around the globe.
FIFA likes to take credit for this increase in popularity, but that credit is, of course, wholly unearned. In the past four years, as more and more people called for the sport’s governing body to close the gap in prize money between the men’s and women’s World Cup, FIFA actually increased the disparity between the two by $25 million, and on the ground in France, it seems that FIFA has not done an adequate job of promotion or ticketing.
Rather, the increased excitement is owed largely to the overall growth of women’s football; and that growth is due solely to the women who not only play the sport, but have taken it upon themselves to be its fiercest and most effective advocates and activists. Female footballers have always had to fight for the right to merely exist, but since the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada, collective labor actions from teams around the world have extracted more concessions and progress from federations than FIFA ever has.
Even the most casual sports fans have likely heard about the defending World Cup champions, the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT), suing U.S. Soccer for gender discrimination, arguing that it pays the men’s team more money than the women’s team, despite the fact that they do the same job, and have achieved more success than their male counterparts.
The USWNT — which has been battling U.S. Soccer for more equitable treatment since it was founded — really brought their fight with the federation into the public square after winning it all in Canada in 2015 and being subjected to a Victory Tour of exhibition games that were played primarily on subpar turf, a surface the men’s team hardly ever has to play on. After boycotting a match in Hawaii because of the dangerous field conditions, the USWNT launched an #EqualPlayEqualPay campaign in 2016 and filed a wage-discrimination suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Since the issue still has not been remedied to their liking, the USWNT has now taken its fight to the biggest stage in the sport.
The Spanish women’s team actually began its collective action in 2015, when the Women’s World Cup was still happening. After the Spanish women finished in last place in their group in their World Cup debut, the players wrote an open letter asking for the firing of their manager, Ignacio Quereda, who was allowed to oversee the team for 27 years despite only winning 38% of their matches under his direction. As detailed by Deadspin, he also emotionally abused the players by attacking them for their weight and calling them immature little girls (“chavalitas”); kept players off the team if they crossed him; and did so little actual coaching that the players actually had to scout their opponents on YouTube themselves.
The letter received enough attention that Quereda ultimately resigned, and the Spanish football federation — which spent less than 1% of its budget on women’s football in 2014 — has begun prioritizing the women’s game a bit more. At this year’s World Cup, the Spanish team has already advanced to the knockout rounds.
In the fall of 2015, the Australian women’s national soccer team canceled a sell-out tour of the United States because players were so upset over their pay, which was far below minimum wage. Despite the fact that the Matildas reached the quarterfinals of the 2015 World Cup, they left Canada with just $2,014 in their pockets, which did little to boost their $14,844 annual salary. The strike was effective — their annual salary has essentially doubled, and contracts in the Australian pro league have increased significantly as well.
In 2016, the Chilean women’s team was fed up after years of neglect, and decided to form a players’ union. This union ended up integrating with the men’s union, and gained enough power to convince the Chilean federation to host the Copa América, a major women’s football tournament in the region, which ended up being the launchpad for Chile to earn its maiden Women’s World Cup bid.
“The Chilean team would not be playing in the 2019 World Cup were it not for the voluntary labor, blood, sweat, tears of the players themselves,” said Dr. Brenda Elsey, an associate professor of history at Hofstra University and co-author of Futbolera: A History of Women and Sports in Latin America.
In December 2016, the Nigerian Super Falcons decided to stage a sit-in at the Agura Hotel in the nation’s capital until they received their bonuses for winning the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations — a total of $23,650 per player. Janine Anthony, a presenter and reporter for BBC Sport Africa, told ThinkProgress that it is not uncommon for bureaucracy in Nigeria to complicate payments, since most of the money for football comes from the government. However, those complications disproportionately impact the women.
“You just know that if it was for the men’s team, a lot of things would be faster,” Anthony said. “Every time you have issues, the girls have to be the one to … just understand. ‘Oh, please bear with us.’”
This time, however, they were done bearing with anybody. Their protest garnered national attention, and the federation very quickly found a way to access the money that had been so unobtainable just a day prior.
The following year, the Swedish women’s football team threatened to boycott the Player Awards Gala and their friendly against France if a new contract wasn’t reached, and Scottish players implemented a media blackout to raise awareness about the lack of financial support and respect shown by the Scottish Football Association. Both actions led to improved contracts.
Also in 2017, Argentinian and Brazilian female players followed in Chile’s footsteps and challenged their federations. In Brazil, multiple players retired in protest and a group of former and current players released a powerful letter denouncing the federation’s abrupt firing of Emily Lima, the team’s first female coach. The Brazilian federation launched a commission to address the concerns raised in the letter, but it was disbanded four months later, without any concrete advances.
The Argentinian women had a bit more luck. In the spring of 2017, the Argentinian women’s team was convened after an 18-month hiatus to play a match in Uruguay. But players had to travel in and out of the country on the same day as the match, there was hardly any support staff present, and the players didn’t even receive their paltry $8.50 per day stipends. So, they went on strike, and wrote a letter as a national team.
The federation ended up re-hiring head coach Carlos Borello, who they had let go after the team failed to qualify for the 2015 World Cup, adding a bit more support staff, and paying the players a stipend. It’s far from equality, but it did lead to the Argentinian women making their World Cup debut in France.
Of course, these examples only come from the 24 teams that qualified for the World Cup. These labor movements are happening throughout the ranks of women’s football.
Last September, the Puerto Rico women’s team actually stopped playing right after their friendly against Argentina kicked off and stood united facing the main stand, putting their hands to their ears, signaling for the Puerto Rican Football Association to listen to their complaints about working conditions and support.
In December, The Guardian reported on allegations that Karim Keramuddin, a top official with the Afghanistan Football Federation, had been sexually abusing players on the Afghanistan women’s national team. The players — who do not all live in Afghanistan, but rather are spread out around the globe — came together and reported the abuse. Just last week, FIFA banned Keram for life, and Afghan officials have issued a warrant for his arrest.
“I think the executives and the men complicit in this abuse were feeling like, because the women were not all in one place that they would not be unified or have that network. But sometimes WhatsApp does wonderful things, and it can keep you bonded. And these women really, literally decided to stick together,” said Shireen Ahmed, a freelance sports reporter and co-host of Burn It All Down, a weekly feminist sports podcast. [Editor’s note: the author of this article is also a co-host of the podcast.]
Thanks to all of these collective actions, progress is slowly unfolding. In the past couple of years, both Norway and New Zealand have struck historic equal pay deals with their women’s teams, and in 2019, just before they left for the World Cup, the South African football federation told the women’s national team that it would earn the same bonuses that the men earn in tournaments from here on out.
All of these gains are only possible because female footballers worldwide are banding together and demanding their worth, recognizing and embracing the power of solidarity.
Of course, until FIFA itself decides to get its act together and close the $410 million prize money gap, and mandate that federations spend more than 15% of their FIFA funds on programs for women and youth, the gender gap in football is always going to be gaping.
“FIFA is ultimately the gatekeeper because they have the most amount of resources,” said Meg Linehan. “U.S. soccer isn’t happy with them but no one in the world was happy with them either.”