Women’s football was riding the wave after a largely successful and stupendously popular FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2019. The National Women’s Soccer League was about to begin in March in the United States to build on the popularity of the country’s fourth World Cup triumph. India, for its part, was getting ready to host the FIFA Women’s Under-17 World Cup in November.
Equal pay, fair coverage and sponsorship interests were predominantly the topics of discussion in women’s football that looked set for heartening growth. The year 2020 looked promising to say the least. But the pandemic has put all plans on hold. Nations sealed their borders, the health and economy of the world took a beating, and sports came to a screeching halt in March due to COVID-19.
Efforts are now on to resume sports in regions where the coronavirus situation is seemingly under control. Germany and South Korea have restarted their football leagues, and efforts are on to resume action in England, Spain and Italy.
But where does women’s football stand in the scheme of things?
Though Germany relaunched the women’s league — Frauen-Bundesliga — within two weeks of restarting the men's league, the football federations in England, Spain and Italy have confirmed the cancellation of their women’s leagues while gearing up for the resumption of men’s football.
Brazil’s Renata Cicero Mendonca, a TV sports commentator and co-founder of Dibradoras , a website that aims to raise visibility about women’s sports, threw light on the situation.
“I think it (women’s football) has always been at the bottom of the pyramid and suffers the most in situations like this. I believe it will have a huge impact. They already had little financial support and you start hearing that clubs and federations will have many pay cuts, so it’s inevitable to think they will cut investments in the women’s sport first because they don’t believe women can bring profit or at least can’t bring in as much as men,” she said.
Both men’s and women’s football are, however, on hold in Brazil. She spoke about how her country’s football federation was dealing with the crisis. “The Brazilian confederation made a donation to help clubs pay the salaries of the players for at least two months. They did this for women’s teams and men’s teams from the bottom divisions (third and fourth divisions). Some of the women’s clubs had to reduce the salaries of the players, but at least nobody here is talking about cancelling the women’s tournament,” she said.
But she believes women athletes will show resilience and bounce back as they have familiarity in dealing with tough situations.
“Women’s sports are kind of used to surviving without investments. Female athletes never had a lot of investments and they always found a way to survive. They are more used to breaking barriers and overcoming obstacles, so we might as well think they will know better how to deal with such a tough situation,” she said. “Women’s football never had money. It is just for the past few years that investments have started coming in, so it’s a challenge, but it wouldn’t be impossible to survive with less money now.”
“I think the worst thing is that women’s football was in ascension here (Brazil). It was a great moment, a lot of people were starting to follow it, more channels showed interest in broadcasting matches. And now it has all stopped and it’s hard to imagine it will be the same when everything is back. It will be different, but I think not everything will be lost,” she said.
Spain’s Pilar Casado Biesa, a sports reporter for Cadena COPE radio, offers a slightly different viewpoint despite the cancellation of the women’s league in her country.
“Only two professional leagues are going to resume — football and basketball (but men’s). Women’s football and basketball are cancelled as they are not considered high-stakes professional leagues even if women’s football was on course to be one.
“Everything is going to be affected, not only women’s sports. There will be no fans to watch live sports. There will be reduced budgets and lower salaries. Women will be affected for sure as it was always hard even during good times,” she said.
She, however, has hopes that the damage would be limited because of supportive government programmes that offer tax benefits to companies that fund women’s sports. She is particularly positive about the future of women’s basketball. “Spain is going to host the Eurobasket Women’s basketball 2021 before the Olympics, so there is a good chance to increase support for women's basketball,” she said.
With an already non-existent sporting ecosystem for women, Bangladesh’s Tamanna Siddiquee doesn’t see much impact for women’s sport in her country.
“As such, women’s sports was never much in focus here. This year, there were not many women’s sports events happening. So women’s sports is unlikely to be affected because of the pandemic. But I do believe there will be a long-term impact. They didn’t get much chance earlier, and now it has totally stopped. When they need more avenues and opportunities, they are having a year without any event or practice,” Siddiquee, a sports commentator and radio jockey, said.
“All the training facilities are closed. The players are practising in their own homes. However, the female players don’t have everything they need in their house to practise. It is also more difficult for women to train at home because not everyone’s home environment is favourable,” she said, adding a cultural perspective to the problem.
In Ghana, there are no signs of the men’s and women’s football leagues resuming. Playing behind closed doors is not an option. “Here, the revenue comes from gate proceeds, so if they allow football to go on without fans, how will the clubs survive? In Europe, their revenue is more on TV rights, so they can afford it,” Juliet Bawuah, a sports presenter for TV 3 network in Ghana explained.
Ghana launched a largely successful campaign last year that brought in fans to the stadiums for women’s games.
“The women’s league was suffering for years. The federation, under a new president, decided to have a new campaign called #SheDidThat. The whole idea was to pick up excitement to rally around the women’s league and come to the stadium. Most of the matches were free, so we had people going to the stadium to watch some of the league matches, especially the ones played in the capital city Accra. The idea was to whip up excitement, it succeeded,” Bawuah explained. But she is afraid the federation will give priority to men first when football fully returns.
Oshrat Eni, an Israeli football player and commentator for national radio station, championed a movement to ensure equal funding for men and women in sports from the government. The movement, led by female footballers, won the case in its Supreme Court forcing the government to reallocate its budget in 2019.
But disparity continues.
“Men’s football is back in Israel this week (June), but the women’s league abruptly ended in March — after 14 match days — seemingly because of the COVID-19 virus, but the truth is that nobody cares about women’s football,” she said.
“We saw an amazing World Cup last summer and everything was uphill because sponsors were coming in, there was more budget, more people were interested in women’s football and there was more media coverage; everything was looking good and then the lockdown happened, everything just stopped.
“You can see in many countries the women’s leagues have stopped. You can see it in Spain and Italy — the two countries that suffered the most from the pandemic — where men will come back to play but women won’t. Also, you can see the same happening in England where the Premier League is about to restart, but the WSL (Women’s Super League) and Championship for women were declared finished. So you can see the difference from the point of view of the decision-makers,” she said.
“In Israel, they just ended the league in March when the lockdown began. It’s funny because we are in June and men’s football is back. They were really in a rush to stop women’s sport. It reflects what they think. They don’t think women’s sport is as important as men’s. They are using all kinds of excuse about the pandemic,” she lamented.
“If you look at it this way, we don’t have spectators for the Women’s Premier League anyway. We are used to playing without spectators, so it’s easier to ensure social distancing rules. It’s quite funny, sad actually, but even the pitches that we play in or the locker rooms don’t have a proper toilet or shower facilities. We usually don’t use it so we can manage to play and abide by the rules, but the FA and the government just decided to stop the league.
“From their decisions, we can see what they are thinking. I hope that in the future it won’t hurt us. Sponsors want to come and support us even though the situation in the market is not very good. In the United States, they didn’t start the Women’s Super League in March, but they are going to do a Challenge Cup from the end of June to the end of July. They also have a new sponsor for it and there will be media coverage. They are interested in women’s football although everything has stopped,” Eni said.
Rajes Paul, sports editor of The Star newspaper in Malaysia, doesn’t see the lockdown having an impact on women's sport.
“Here, it’s the same for all. Men and women’s football are still on hold. Restarting is being done in stages, so I don’t have answers for the impact on sports yet. But our sports organisations have the same amount of funding for both. We do have more fans for men’s football, but things are unlikely to change for better or worse because of the pandemic,” she said.
Peggy Bergere, a former France hockey player and TV presenter, echoed the Malaysian’s views. Everything has been stopped since three months. It is likely to start only in September. For sure, it will be harder for women’s sports as they already suffer much more due to lack of money, but there is no bias because of the lockdown. We have to wait and see what happens when sports return to normalcy,” she said.
While it is too early to know the impact on women’s sport, particularly football, the consensus is that women’s sports is likely to take a hit unless there is an intervention from the government or the investors.
Brazil’s Renata summed it up: “It’s important in this moment that the FIFA and all football federations pay special attention to women’s football.
“They are at the bottom of the pyramid and in order to maintain women’s football’s ascension, it’s necessary that federations keep the investments flowing because the clubs won’t have the same condition to do it. They should guarantee women’s football’s survival.”
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