Football’s unnoticed scandal: men-only competitions

Time to build another locker room? Maxim Blinkov

While the FIFA corruption allegations have been all over the news recently, a less noted but very serious and certainly more widespread injustice has been quietly at work in the footballing world for as long as the game itself: women are effectively banned from playing professionally in men’s football teams.

The situation for women playing football has undoubtedly substantially improved over recent years, as we can see from the visibility of the Women’s World Cup in Canada at the moment. Nonetheless football governing bodies, both at the national and international level, should abolish competitions that exclude women participants in principle. Not to do so is a form of gender discrimination.

In 2004 Maribel Dominguez agreed a two-year deal to play for Celaya, a second-division men’s Mexican club. Days later FIFA blocked her transfer, stating that “there must be a clear separation between men’s and women’s football” and observing that this transfer would contravene current rules.

The Football Association, which serves England and Wales, recently raised the age limit for mixed-gender teams from 16 to 18, having been as low as 11 years old only five years ago. The latest change brings England and Wales broadly into line with Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Italy.

In the case of the Dominguez transfer, the right response for FIFA would have been to change the rules to allow her to play for Celaya. And the right move by the Football Association in the UK would have been to eliminate the age restriction altogether. No competition, professional or amateur, should exclude women football players in principle.

The quality argument

What reasons might there be for thinking otherwise? Any adequate argument must appeal to some characteristic shared by all women and no men that is not just a difference in gender. Otherwise, the charge of gender discrimination becomes apt.

One often cited reason is that at the highest level, women simply aren’t as good as men at playing football. While it may be true that the average quality of a professional woman football player is lower than the average quality of her male professional counterpart, there are surely some women players who are better than some male professional players.

Take Brazilian football star Marta, for instance, whose net worth is in the region of £1m and whose salary is comparable to some English Premier League players. She could certainly hold her own in some current men’s leagues. And even if it were true that no professional woman footballer was as good a player as any professional man, it should not be up to football governing bodies to veto signings on the basis of a player’s alleged insufficient quality.

Brazil’s Marta takes on South Korea at the Women’s World Cup. EPA

The safety argument

Another reason voiced by some male professionals is that, because women are physically less powerful than men, having women play with men professionally would jeopardise their physical safety and lead to serious injury. I have also seen some men report that they would be less willing to play as physically against women as they would against other men.

But even if on average women were more at risk of injury, an in-principle ban on women would still not be justified. If it were, then men who are particularly prone to injury should also be barred from playing. Clearly no such ban exists, and it would be outrageous to introduce one. It would likely mean banning stellar players of the calibre of Italian international Giuseppe Rossi, who has been played only half a season since October 2011 due to four serious recurring cruciate ligament injuries.

Any football player should be allowed to play the game even if doing so means exposing themselves to a high risk of injury, so long as they consent to the risks. And the fact that some men are unwilling to play as physically against women than against men is no reason to permit gender discrimination either. A less physical style of play is a small price to pay for gender equality.

The gimmick argument

Another reason for a ban might be that clubs would sign women to men’s teams as a publicity stunt. This has undoubtedly happened already. Italian Serie A side Perugia’s much fanfared, but ultimately uncompleted, signings of Hanna Ljungberg and Victoria Svensson in 2003 are a case in point.

But clubs have also signed men footballers for publicity reasons in the past, quite rightly with no interference from football governing bodies. Perugia signed Colonel Qaddafi’s son Saadi around the same time as Ljungberg and Svensson, for instance. And when Fiorentina owner Della Valle signed Japanese star Hidetoshi Nakata towards the end of his footballing career, this was widely acknowledged to be a move made to increase the visibility of Della Valle’s shoe company to consumers in Far East markets. Again, the argument for a ban on publicity grounds falls down.

I go back to what I said at the beginning: preventing women who have the ability and desire to play football against men because of their gender is discrimination. For this reason, the ban should be lifted. And this viewpoint is perfectly consistent with maintaining women-only leagues, by the way. This is for the same reasons that you can have talented under-21s like Harry Kane playing for the senior England squad while still maintaining under-21 competitions. You can justify the restriction in both cases on the need to encourage and foster talent among a class of players who at the moment would not stand out to the same degree in competitions with unrestricted participation.