MONTE CASTELLO DI VIBIO — When I found myself reporting on women's soccer in 2017 as part of a project on gender inequality, the female version of the beautiful game was getting few headlines.

Only a handful of journalists and academics were looking into it and pointing out the unequal conditions women faced: discrimination, sexism, limited resources were the common denominator across different cultures and economies. But two years later, with the Women's World Cup set to kick off in June, things seem to be taking a turn for the better.

Female matches have drawn record attendance. National associations are recognizing women players as professionals. And the media is taking notice, turning wider attention, finally, to the struggles female soccer players face even before they take the field for this year's big event, in France.

Show us the money

One of the biggest stories is unfolding in the United States, where on March 8 — International Women's Day — players from the women's national team filed a lawsuit against the country's Soccer Federation over equal treatment and pay.

The reigning champion U.S. women's team has won the World Cup a record three times — in 1991, 1999 and 2015. The U.S. men's team, in contrast, has never fared better than third place (and that was in the very first World Cup, in 1930). And yet, as the lawsuit points out, women national players are paid just 38% of what their male counterparts earn.

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US Women's Soccer Team celebrate goal — Photo: Kevin Langley/CSM/ZUMA

This is possible because the men's and women's U.S. national teams have separate collective bargaining agreements, and their pay is structured differently, reports Anne M. Peterson of the AP. The 28 players of the women's national team are seeking damages that include back pay.

As a salary survey released in 2017 by Sporting Intelligence points out, the pay gap is more entrenched in soccer than in politics, business, medicine and science. Indeed, the nearly 37 million euros per year that Brazilian star Neymar earns playing for Paris Saint-Germain, the survey points out, is roughly equivalent to the combined yearly salaries of 1,693 female players from the world's top seven women's leagues (France, Germany, England, USA, Sweden, Australia and Mexico).

Brands and bonuses

While some star female players can make as much as their male counterparts because of endorsement deals and sponsorship, the disparity has a huge toll on less famous players. Historically, the argument has always been that clubs receive lower revenues from women's soccer compared to men's. While that would not apply to national teams, where it's up to the state to decide how to remunerate players, even the lower revenues myth is coming apart.

For one thing, more brands are jumping on board to sponsor women's soccer, as Suzanne Wrack, female soccer reporter for The Guardian, tweets: "Lucozade sponsoring Lionesses, Budweiser partnering with Lionesses, Gatorade sponsors Man City women, Nike becoming official match ball supplier of Uefa's women's competitions and Nike & Adidas release separate women's team kits for the first time... Now tell me there is no money to be made in women's football. Big brands can smell what's in the air."

A case in point: Adidas recently announced that it will pay its sponsored women athletes from the World Cup's winning team the same bonuses it awards male World Cup champions. This is the same company, it's worth pointing out, that got into hot water in both Colombia and Argentina because it used models rather than national team players to present their women's jerseys. Imagine using a model — and not Messi — for the men's jerseys.

Attendance also seems to be hitting new highs. In Spain, the world record for a women's soccer club match was set on March 17 when a crowd of 60,739 turned out to watch Atletico Madrid play Barcelona in the Spanish capital.

The match was played in the Wanda Metropolitano stadium, home to Atletico's men's team, rather than in the normal women's locale, which has a capacity of just 3,500, reports CNN. Afterwards, Spain's leading sports papers, Marca and Diario AS, dedicated their front pages to the story — yet another surprise considering that only 4% of sports media content is dedicated to women's sports, according to UNESCO.

Sexism in South America

Women's soccer is also making strides in South America, where female players have had to fight against some of the worst conditions among soccer-loving countries.

In Brazil, the region's biggest soccer market, the national TV network Globo announced that it will broadcast the Women's FIFA World Cup for the first time, the Brazilian women's sports blog dibradoras reported.

There are signs of progress in neighboring Argentina as well. Brenda Elsey, an associate professor in history at Hofstra University and an expert in women's soccer, has reported on the plight of Argentine players who receive no salary and have to pay for their own travel expenses. But in March, Argentina's soccer association announced that the national women's league will be granted professional status, and that the association will contribute towards the payment of professional contracts of at least eight players per team.

The professionalization of soccer gained momentum this year when player Macarena Sánchez launched a legal complaint after she was dismissed by the UAI Urquiza team, the Argentine daily Clarín reports.

In Colombia, in the meantime, members of the women's national team went public with allegations of mistreatment. They were also threatened, they said, with having the country's professional league downgraded to amateur status. Allegations of sexual harassment within the girls' under-17 team came to light as well.

Colombian male soccer stars, including Bayern Munich midfielder James Rodriguez, came out in support of their female counterparts, and eventually the professional status of the women's league was confirmed.

"We celebrate that decision and we hope that the parties involved comply with their commitment, not only with sport, but with equal opportunities for women in football, and the fight against discrimination," Colombian daily El Espectador noted in an editorial.

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Team Canada celebrates making a goal — Photo: Brad Smith/ISIPhotos/ZUMA

Leveling the playing field

FIFA, the sport's self-proclaimed governing body, is also turning its attention to allegations of discrimination and abuse. Last year, players on the Afghan women's national team accused their federation's male officials, including President Keramuddin Karim, of sexual and physical abuse. The investigation followed revelations that Khalida Popal — a former team captain who has lived in Denmark since 2016 after receiving deaths threats in Afghanistan — made in an exclusive interview with The Guardian.

FIFA is investigating Karim and extended his suspension in March — good news from an organization whose former president, Sepp Blatter, once suggested that women wear tighter uniforms to make their games more commercial. Three years ago FIFA created a Women's Football Division dedicated to growing women's soccer and promoting women's empowerment and leadership. And in October 2018 it launched its Women's Football Strategy, providing a clear plan to grow the women's game globally.

"If women will go to those lengths to play football, we can only imagine how the women's game will develop under the right global conditions," Kelly Lindsey, the current head coach of the Afghanistan national women's soccer team, commented on CNN. "Men's [soccer] may have a 111-year head start, but with the required shifts in culture and governance, the women's game will explode."

All of this leads, of course, to the sport's next big moment, the FIFA Women's World Cup in France. I, for one, can't wait — and not just because of the electrifying show these world-class atheletes will deliver. This is also a matter of equality. Recent developments are encouraging, but there's much ground to cover still before women players enjoy an even playing field.


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