Is the not-so beautiful men’s game putting people off women’s football?

Tackling the legacy of the men’s game. Rold Vennenbernd/EPA

The FIFA Women’s World Cup is getting to the business end of the tournament. On Friday and Saturday the quarter-final matches will kick off with an enticing prospect as Germany take on France. It conjures up memories of classic tussles in the men’s game, not least the infamous 1982 World Cup semi-final which saw German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher’s “assault” on Patrick Battiston. The trouble is, it may be just these sorts of comparisons which are holding back the growth of interest in the women’s game.

In the current tournament, although matches featuring France and the hosts Canada have been popular and partisan, other games have been sparsely supported. Whilst the global television coverage is touted to exceed one billion viewers, there have still been questions about the lack of spectators, and lack of media analysis of women’s football in general.

Crowd trouble. GoToVan, CC BY

Women’s football might be one of the largest growing sports, but it has a long way to go. Consider first that while Germany received $35 million for their triumph in the 2014 men’s World Cup, the victors in Canada will win only $2 million. And women’s football simply doesn’t attract the same levels of spectatorship as the men’s game. There are plenty of reasons for that, of course. It takes time to build a following and fanbase; to create stars.

Potentially too, this lack of spectators may be due to the many myths around women’s football (that were beautifully satirised by the Norwegian team). Sexist attitudes still exist, as exemplified by the man in charge of promoting Brazilian football, Marco Aurelio Cunha, who said women are “getting more beautiful, putting on make-up”. Not should we forget that women’s football is not celebrated in all countries, as seen in the outrage of men in Saudi Arabia. But crucially, we fear that women’s football is suffering from the tarnished image of its successful but divisive sibling – the men’s game.

The Norway team keep a straight face.

Reputational damage

When people say, “but I don’t like football” they are usually talking about men’s football. This has become associated with two distinct characteristics: cynical professionalism and masculine fan culture. Elite level men’s football has become associated with unnecessary diving, over-the-top showboating celebrations, disrespecting officials and questionable actions outside of the game courtesy of bloated salaries and corporate sponsorships.

Too much?

Whilst it is clear that football fans are not one homogenous group, a dominant form of partisanship has developed that emphasises difference through hooliganism, obssessive fandom, sexism, homophobia, racism and other forms of prejudice. Now, the “beautiful game” has been tarnished by the recent FIFA corruption and arrests.

This culture of discrimination and violence has helped to send stadium attendance of men’s football into decline in many parts of Europe. This helps to create a rump of masculine fans who perceive that as they are the only ones still attending; they are the “authentic” fans.

Obsessive fandom and the culture of masculinity nurtures a sense of authority that aims to exclude others from voicing opinions on domestic and international games. Within the game, bad calls, needless diving, and “friendly banter” often dominate football talk. Within these conversations, subtle power dynamics are minimising the voice of the less masculine, less obsessive fan.

Head case. Pressure falls on FIFA. Steffen Schmidt/EPA

Support network

While we are also falling into the trap of comparing women’s and men’s football, it is important to acknowledge that many of the viewing public will be doing likewise. It is important to create a space that challenges the dominant masculine culture of football, replete with prejudice, and which consequently seems to influence why people watch the game.

Men’s football is locked into a symbiotic relationship between partisan support and commercial victory. As the men’s game has grown as a professional and marketable industry, the spoils of victory are manifest. Global celebrity, commercial endorsements and fan adulation can catapult male footballers into millionaires. Meanwhile, the masculine fan culture prizes these victories as symbolic domination over rivals. Within this environment, a mantra of “win at all costs” ensues. Ultimately the male players who dive or challenge the referee are replicating the chants and demands of the fans in the stands.

In contrast, the crowds watching the women’s game are much more diverse, far less violent, less abusive and less prejudicial. The current Women’s World Cup shows that there can be a space within football that permits a different form of fandom and spectatorship. It’s just hard to get there through the shadow cast by the big brother.

Cynical challenge

Women’s football doesn’t just represent the game being played well, it also represents a challenge to male-only spaces that value a very limited way of being a man. If you don’t want to push these agendas forward then at least support the women and men who are willing to. As Gabby Logan argues, women are entitled to occupy any space, and that includes sport.

The Kuwait football team. Doha Stadium Plus Qatar, CC BY

Women have shown that on and off the field, they can excel in football. The BBC has shown excellent coverage by Jacqui Oatley, supported by Sue Smith, Rachel Yankey, and Rachel Brown-Finnis, and highlighted that good analysis of football is not the preserve of men; even if men perplexedly continue to dominate in coaching and match commentary roles.

On the pitch, Germany, France and the US have shown that professional, organised and enthusiastic teams can compete in high quality games and deliver spectacular goals.

The challenge for the women’s game is that as it professionalises, it avoids the cynicism that pervades the men’s game. Respecting the referee, avoiding diving and focusing on the quality of the football on the pitch has to continue in order to maintain a challenge the dominant, and damaging image of (men’s) football. In this way we can remember to appreciate just how beautiful the game of football is.