The world was surprised when Brazil was knocked out of the FIFA Women’s World Cup earlier this week by Australia. If we were paying attention we probably shouldn’t have been.
Their countrymen in Brazil probably weren’t surprised because they most definitely weren’t paying attention, and that’s the problem. The world’s most soccer mad nation goes out of its way to ignore its women’s team to a degree that’s maddening, even to impartial bystanders.
Some of the best visuals during the 2014 World Cup were the thousands of fans on Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach congregating to watch the men’s side play. During the Women’s World Cup you’d be lucky to find one bar that was showing the games. The Copa America tournament in Chile has filled the front page of the sports sections for the last few weeks. The rest of the newspapers have been filled with analysis of the U-20 World Cup in New Zealand. The women’s team has barely been mentioned.
The problem is somewhat chicken and egg. Is it the fans that don’t care to support the Brazilian women, thus the media don’t cover them? Or is it the fifth estate’s responsibility to tell stories about both the men and women, and only then will the public become engaged? Either way the chief culpability lands at the feet of Brazilian soccer’s governing body.
The Brazil federation has failed to keep up with its elite competition. The English FA have added dollars to growing the female game and pushed them hard promotionally in the lead up to this World Cup and they’ve been rewarded as England’s Lionesses won a game in the knockout stage for the first time ever. The United States, Germany, Canada, and France have all substantially invested in their women’s programs over the last decade with extensive residency programs and the proof is in their strong displays. All four nations won their group and are still alive.
The issue of female funding is not unique to Brazil.
The men’s game is overflowing with money. According to Loretta Lynch, the United States attorney general, Jack Warner and Chuck Blazer racketeered their way to over $150 million in bribes between themselves and their associates. Blazer purchasing a penthouse in the Trump Towers just for his cats is testament that the fat cat aristocrats who have made ugly money off the beautiful game have so much of it they don’t know what to do with it.
There is no greater example of this double standard than former FIFA vice president Warner. While the current Trinidad and Tobago MP was embezzling millions and paying off his personal debts, the women’s national team could barely afford to play. So much so that coach Randy Woldrum took to Twitter after the $500 he was given for the team’s CONCACAF championship appearance ran out after their first meal.
With qualification to the World Cup on the line, Woldrum, who took time away from his job as NWSL franchise Houston Dash’s coach to voluntarily lead Trinidad and Tobago, was left no other choice. Luckily his cry for help was answered.
The soccer website KeeperNotes.com reached out to Waldrum and collected just under $10,000 via a PayPal account. Haiti’s national team also heard Waldrum’s plea from their training camp in South Bend, Indiana. The Haitians themselves had been running on donations and money raised from fundraising initiatives and only had $1,316 at the time. The Haitian players implored their coach Shek Borkowski, who is also coaching for free, to give it all to the Trinidad and Tobago squad. Local restaurants and families, the American Outlaws supporters group, plus expat Trinidadians stepped up to offer help in the form of delivering water, Gatorade, granola bars and training attire to the team’s Comfort Inn hotel.
The federation’s only response was a social media ban of the “Soca Princesses” because the public pleas were embarrassing to the federation and the country.
The madness eventually stopped when Haiti’s soccer federation received a call from the Clinton Foundation, the charitable organization run by former President Bill and Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, saying it wanted to support the women’s program.
FIFA has rules in place to make sure women’s teams get funding. The problem is that there is no oversight to enforce these rules. Sepp Blatter would never want to bite the hands that feed him and kept him in power year after year.
Each of the 209 FIFA member associations receive payments after big tournaments such as the World Cup. Of a million dollar payout, 15 percent is mandated by FIFA to be spent on their women’s program. In any other sector of society if only 15 percent of resources were allocated to females, it would be seen as grossly sexist, not progressive.
The famed women from Brazil are models not footballers. Adriana Lima and Gisele Bundchen are the worldwide female exports Brazil is known for—a dangerous message to young Brazilian girls that walking down a runway is a more redeeming skill than running away from defenders with the ball at your feet.
The coordinator for the women’s game for the Confederation of Brazilian Football, Marco Aurelio Cunha has a warped perspective on a possible fix. “Now the women are getting more beautiful, putting on make-up. They go in the field in an elegant manner,” he told the Globe and Mail. Aurelio expands: ”Now the shorts are a bit shorter, the hair styles are more done up. It’s not a woman dressed as a man.” He’s clearly missing the point. These women should be supported like men. Their support shouldn’t be contingent on them acting more “lady like” when they compete.
None of this, though, should be surprising coming from a country where up until not too long ago women weren’t allowed to play. Women’s soccer participation was forbidden by government decree and was not lifted until 1979. As a frame of reference, Title IX had already been written into law in the U.S. for seven years and the North American rise in women’s soccer participation that continues to this day had already begun.
Brazil had a proud history of women’s soccer participation dating back to the early 1900s, but it was banned in 1941. The rationale written into law was that soccer was a sport that was “considered incompatible to their feminine nature.”
Brazil isn’t alone in the blame. It’s symptomatic of an overall disinterest for the women’s side of the game by the federations that trickles down from the top. Costa Rican players preparing for the tournament had to take three buses to get to practice and then go to work afterwards. Meanwhile South Korea hasn’t played a friendly in their home country in 17 years.
Brazil has managed to have sustained success despite a lack of support. Historically, the Brazilians did not train together before tournaments. Until this February, the women had never held a training camp before a World Cup. The World Cup squad of 1999 practised once a week. In 2011 the team arrived in Germany only days before the tournament.
Despite that, Brazil has won six of the seven continental tournaments, finished third and second in the World Cups of 1999 and 2007, and brought home two silver medals at the Olympics.They have since established a residency program but in reality it was designed more so they would show well at home at next year’s Rio Olympics than it was for this World Cup.
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In Brazil it’s not just an issue for the national program, the inequities seep down into the club system.
Professional women’s soccer players’ starting salaries in Brazil are just above minimum wage.
The wage disparity is so dramatic that Nene, a former league leader in scoring, quit Santos FC because she earned more money working in a toy factory than she did toying with goalkeepers.
Few games are televised and the stands are almost always empty. The country’s most prestigious women’s soccer club, Santos FC, folded in 2012 in order to pay the salary of Neymar when European teams were trying to lure him away and Pele begged him to stay in his home country.
The women’s team operating budget was reportedly around 1.5 million reais a year ($667,000). At the time, Santos was paying Neymar one million reais ($447,000) a month. Neymar quite literally could have funded the women’s operation himself, not that he should be obligated to do so.
Barcelona eventually paid a transfer fee of more than 57 million euros to acquire Neymar. Imagine if just a fraction of that was invested in the female club? Marta, meanwhile, has struggled in obscurity, playing abroad, unable to find a league stable enough to pay her what she is worth.
One of the female players affected when the wealthy club cut its women’s outfit was American Caitlin Fisher.
Fisher and other players started the Guerreiras Project, aimed at raising awareness about discrimination against women’s soccer and women in Brazilian society as a whole. They tell the stories of the many Brazilian women, Marta included, who defied their parents’ orders and in some cases ran away from home to pursue their dreams of playing soccer.
“People really put social pressure on women not to play soccer,” Fisher told USA TODAY Sports. “Soccer is associated with masculinity in Brazil. It is a very traditional, male-defined thing. There is a lot of prejudice for women who are seen as a threat to that, just by the simple fact that they want to play.”
Of the 400,000 youth female soccer players in Brazil (Canada has 850,000) it will be harder to produce the next Marta when all signs they see are discouraging young girls from playing.
Remember the vivid images of the host men’s starting 11 crying during the national anthem at last year’s World Cup? That raw emotion comes from the same place that had the women wiping away tears when they were wiped from the 2015 tournament by Australia. The sense of sacrifice for your nation is no different.
And yet the men’s tears are out of pride knowing how much it mattered to their entire country that they won. I imagine the women’s tears are partially because they know it only matters to them when they lose. So don’t wonder how a soccer nation like Brazil was knocked out before the quarterfinals of the World Cup. Wonder how they have managed to consistently make it to the World Cup in the first place.