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The Beautiful Game and the Politics of Space

On the 17th of July 2011, the Japanese women’s soccer team scored the winning goal of the FIFA Women’s World Cup championship against the United States with a score of 3-1 to Japan.

US news headlines raved that the Japan-US final ranked 6th most-viewed soccer telecast in US television history with 13 million viewers tuning in. The game was more popular than other recent sports events such as the Stanley Cup, Baseball’s All Star game, and ranked higher in viewer ratings than the US versus Algeria match in the men’s Soccer World Cup last year. Although these numbers seem impressive, they pale in comparison to the men’s World Cup in South Africa last year where FIFA estimated that over 3 million people attended the tournament in South Africa, and around the globe 700 million viewers watched Spain win the championship cup.[i]

Little has been said about the disparity in global coverage and viewership that the FIFA men’s World Cup in 2010 received compared to the Women’s World Cup this last month. Yet, it is clear that men’s sporting tournaments are seen as more important than the women’s equivalent. Despite specific effort from the FIFA governing body this year to increase publicity and coverage of the women’s event, the huge disparity in viewing numbers still begs the question: is women’s soccer ever going to be taken as seriously as the men’s?

I’m not sure that it ever will. The very use of the term ‘women’s football’ illustrates that ‘football’ is understood to be a male sport. ‘Women’s football’ is simply a sub category or add-on to the male sport. This raises concerns around the implications of the use of the term ‘women’s football’: Does it provide women with opportunities for inclusion that they otherwise would not have access to or does it get in the way of true gender integration into sport?[ii]

Historically, football as an organized and professional sport has been a space reserved for men. While women players were always present in amateur or non-professional co-ed and women only games, on the professional level sex was and still is seen as a deciding factor for who plays against whom. During what is considered as the golden era for women’s football in England, the English Football Association placed a ban on women’s football in 1921 that lasted for 50 years. It was only in the early 70’s that the ban was removed and professional women’s football associations started to take shape in an effort to open up spaces for women to compete professionally.[iii]

Social perceptions of football as a masculine sport that is inappropriate and improper for women further alienated women from participating in professional football spaces. It wasn’t until the early 90’s when FIFA and other football associations used slogans such as such as “The Future is Feminine”, “This is My Game Watch Me Play”, and “The Return of the Beautiful Game” to ‘feminize’ football for the public. It was also reported that the then President of FIFA made references to women’s soccer kits needing to carry more of the ‘feminine aesthetic’ such as short skirts worn in tennis or volleyball in order to increase viewership.[iv]

With efforts to feminize football and the development of women’s football committees and associations, women’s football was promising to become one of the fastest growing sports around the globe. Large football associations such as FIFA started to recognize women’s football and identify it as a growing market for investment. As women’s football has gained more recognition by established male administrative structures, women’s associations have gradually given way over the last thirty years to become committees within or affiliated to these male dominated bureaucracies.[v]

Sound familiar? Women’s football was starting to display the same problematic symptoms that women’s committees and associations in largely male spaces such as development, policy, and government, as a result of gender mainstreaming.[vi]

Women’s football as separate from men’s football, as with many other sex-segregated sports, is based on the principle of ‘equal but different’. This approach to equality assumes that biological differences between women and men create unequal competition.

Not only is this a traditional way of thinking about gender equality, it reduces sport to a purely physical activity when most commentators of the Women’s Soccer World Cup, for example, reported on the sophistication of the strategy with which the 2011 women’s tournament unfolded. More importantly, how equal can the competition really be when there is no equality between women and men in access to sporting space, opportunity and resources?[vii]

It also seems hypocritical to me that in other aspects of our cultures, we question the assumption that women are the ‘weaker sex’ and push for integration based on women’s qualifications. Yet when it comes to sports, there seems to be complacency to accepting that disparity in skill and competition comes from a biological inadequacy on behalf of women that disqualifies them from accessing men’s spaces.

While the above arguments against gender and sex segregation in sports seem very reminiscent of first and second wave feminist thought, the term women’s football has also provoked a third wave debate around deconstructing the term ‘woman’ as a gender and sex. Women’s football spaces has forced sport authorities to define who has access to that space by assessing who passes for a woman.[viii]

This debate has been fundamental to transsexual and intersex inclusion in football and sport generally.  The recent cases of Alyn Libman, a transsexual man who fought hard to compete with the US male Olympics figure skating team, and Caster Semenya, South African World Champion of the 800 meter race who underwent sex testing to determine whether she qualified as a woman are pushing the debate on what is considered to be an ‘average male’ and ‘average female’ by sports governing bodies.[ix]

The International Olympic Committee enacted in 2004 a policy for transsexual inclusion that requires transsexuals to meet certain requirements, such as completing genital reconstructive surgery and at least two years of hormonal therapy, in order to be given permission to play with their current gender. Once again, the argument behind these requirements is supposedly to ensure equal competition and a leveled playing field for all competitors. While it is still in question whether transmen can be equally competitive, the main concern arises around transwomen and whether they would carry an unfair advantage from their previous gender.[x]

The Equatorial Guinea women’s football team faced accusations that two of their team members for the FIFA Women’s World Cup this year are men. Salimata and Bilguisa Simpore were eventually excluded from the team due to the questions over their sex.[xi] Unfortunately, the debates arising on gender determinatives have not come close to addressing the inclusion of intersex people in sport. While this might be a hint for us as a society to start thinking beyond gender and sex binaries and acknowledging the presence of athletes of various genders and sex, the development of such an analysis still seems farfetched and held back by our constructions of what qualifies as women’s football.

Women’s football as a professional sport is the result of a long and ongoing battle for inclusion against social and systemic barriers. The strategy of creating women-only spaces has paid off in the sense that there are more female players today than at any other time, and more teams competed to qualify in FIFA Women’s World Cup 2011 than ever before. However, the disparity in opportunities and resources between women’s football and men’s speaks to the holes in this strategy, and forces us to question whether the idea of creating ‘equal but separate’ spaces for men and women to play football and other sports allows for the opportunity to bridge gaps between differences or further highlight them.

With more trans and intersex people pushing for their right to inclusion and participation in professional sport and to allow for a new generation of women, girls, and transsexual and intersex people to excel in sports, we need to start questioning why we adhere to segregation in sport instead of experimenting and learning new ways that allow us to play together.


[i] The Daily Star, FIFA Seeks Notice for Women’s Games, http://bit.ly/qnpGfy, 21st June 2011

[ii] An Equality Too Far?, Jean Williams, Historical Social Research, Vol. 31 -2006, No. 1, 151-169, http://bit.ly/qoduHa

[iii] ibid

[iv] Femininity, Masculinity and Difference: what’s wrong with a sarong?, Barbara Humberstone, The Sociology of Sport and Physical Education: an introductory reader, No. 4, pg 58 – 72, http://bit.ly/oWXJwJ

[v] ibid

[vi]An Equality Too Far?, Jean Williams, Historical Social Research, Vol. 31 -2006, No. 1, 151-169, http://bit.ly/qoduHa

[vii] ibid

[viii] From the “Muscle Moll” to the “Butch” Ballplayer: Mannishness, Lesbianism, and Homophobia in U.S. Women’s Sport, Susan K. Cahn, Feminist Studies, Vol. 19, No. 2, Women’s Bodies and the State (Summer, 1993), pp. 343-368

[ix] The Chronicle, Olympics Transgendered Quandary/Debate Rages on Fairness of New Inclusion Rule, http://bit.ly/5dWzS9 , 14th June 2004

[x] ibid

[xi] Al-Arabiya, Equitorial Guinea drops ‘men’ from women’s soccer team, http://bit.ly/kxE0zG, 25th June 2011

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