Pitches of Another Sort

Published July 03, 2018 by Jessica Tearney-Pearce

World Cup, Women, Iran, Gender Equality, Football, UK, Russia

In the midst of headlines about women and the World Cup , Jessica Tearney-Pearce wonders what all the fuss is about.

On Thursday 21 June 2018, Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, gave birth to a baby. A daughter. This was the climax of a year of aggressive questioning and commenting – during the election campaign and subsequent to her victory – regarding the reality and ability of a prime minister also to be a mother. The antipodean paradise is regularly ahead-of-the-curve regarding progress with gender equality. Ardern is the third female Prime Minister, there have been 3 female governors general, and NZ was the first nation in the world to grant women the right to vote (in 1893, 35 years before all women in the UK won the same right). We (I may now be British but I'll always be a Kiwi) are proud of this record – although there is still a long way to go. I've been shocked by the vitriol regarding Ardern having a child whilst in office. It implies an onus on women of child-bearing age to declare to potential employers their desire or lack thereof to have children, the related bias that employers have towards hiring men over women as a consequence, and highlights opinions and agendas which have no place in 2018, especially in a country with an advanced welfare state.

But this is a blog about football, so I can hear you asking what women have got to do with a tournament at which all of the players, all of the officials, and most of the journalists are men.

NZ is not involved in the FIFA World Cup (although, if anyone cares, the All Blacks have spent the last month demonstrating their superiority in the rugby); but similarly antiquated views to those appearing in NZ have been presented about women in many headlines relating to the game during the last couple of weeks.

Some of the headlines are good news so let's begin there. Iranian women are banned from sporting stadia in their country (not inherently good news of course!). However, in the first week of the World Cup, there was a mass movement, including signs and protests against the conservative regime's ban during their national team's match vs Morocco in Russia. A few days later, when Iran played Spain, the Azadi stadium in Tehran screened the game live and women were permitted to attend for the first time in 37 years. A small victory perhaps, but an improvement nonetheless; one hopes it has staying power and was not a stunt to placate the global media.

More good news. This summer the BBC and ITV have female commentators and pundits for the first time during a men’s football world cup. Some of these pundits play the game professionally themselves such as Alex Scott and Eni Aluko, whilst others are professional broadcasters like Jacqui Oately and commentator Vicki Sparks. They, and other women, have featured in some channels' television coverage increasingly regularly during the last couple of league seasons, and it’s heartening to see the networks taking this trend to the global tournament. Best of all, in the coverage, the women's presence doesn't feel 'token' but is natural and they are seamlessly integrated.

But, the bad news begins with the vitriolic response to these commentators and pundits, which has also existed at a less obvious level during the league season. Horrendous comments on Twitter may have been predictable, but high profile journalists have also weighed in. British journalist Simon Kelner produced this poorly researched piece of trash in which he claims that because 'the World Cup is competed for, exclusively, by men,' women cannot possibly be expert enough to comment on it. Relatedly, last week ex-Chelsea defender, now TalkSport blatherer, Jason Cundy decided it appropriate to announce on air that women's voices are too high-pitched for commentary… Ok…

To suggest that women, because they are women, are any less capable of speaking about football than men is not only ludicrous but smacks of the worst kinds of misogyny which theoretically was eliminated in the West decades ago. It represents that fear which some (and please allow me to emphasise the *some*) men express when women enter, understand, and articulately express opinions about domains which *some* men presume are their purview alone. There is less negative response to women hosting sports shows, which they have done for example on SkySports in the UK for a long time. But those hosts, regardless of their other – often very impressive qualities – are almost always selected on aesthetic bases and discarded when for age or other reasons they become less camera friendly (as seemed to be the case when Natalie Sawyer's contract wasn't renewed earlier this year).

This negativity towards women covering the World Cup on television is not isolated to the UK either. A similar response is being launched in Germany with serious criticism aimed at female commentator Claudia Neumann.

To be fair, many of the female pundits' male colleagues have leapt to their defence on social media, most notably BBC Breakfast and Sports host Dan Walker. Yet one worries that their protests will be drowned beneath the ongoing hate-storm of fear of… What exactly is the fear of?

This is occurring in the context of a tournament before which the Argentinian FA released a booklet for journalists, players, and staff containing advice for those seeking to pick up Russian women – not only shocking in itself but also neglecting to provide tips for those interested in Russian men. Amusingly they subsequently attempted to claim that this entire section of the handbook had been printed accidentally.

On a similar theme, a couple of weeks ago the Russian iteration of the Burger King chain promised that all Russian women who became pregnant to a football player during the World Cup would get free burgers for life – something also subsequently retracted following criticism.

TV coverage at sporting events has regularly and rightly been criticised for featuring only beautiful women in the stands during moments of high emotion and it is indubitable that the exclusivity of this has diminished. But it cannot be denied that, although cameras do now pan to men and children at times in crowd scenes, close-ups are still almost exclusively focused on young, beautiful women, and these are peaking at this tournament. Additionally, last week, the reputable Getty Images (in a post subsequently pulled after criticism and followed by an apology and the promise of investigation) created a feature of images of the 'sexiest fans' at the World Cup – all women of course.

The retraction of all of these publications and promotions highlights that there is an awareness of their inappropriateness. But why is that awareness not at the forefront from the beginning. Why, despite the repeated blunders on a similar theme, do blunders continue to be made?

The saddest tale sees us return to this hallowed isle – 'home' to which football apparently is coming... – where, when people suffer negative consequences of mass televised sporting events at a private, domestic level, those people are almost always women. (It should be noted that this situation undoubtedly occurs elsewhere but that the stats have been done for the UK, and they are shameful). Spikes in violence occur when England win or lose, and, given the rich history of immigration to this country, it's not only England games which result in this behaviour. And this trend continues, despite the worthy efforts being made to counteract these spikes by organisations such as 'Give Domestic Abuse the Red Card'.

It's 2018. Some women like football. Some men don't like football. Women can have babies and jobs. Women are beautiful; men are beautiful – but aesthetically pleasing crowds don't guarantee victory. And most impotantly: no one should be beaten, least of all by someone they know in their own home because one group of men kicked a ball into a net more than another group of men. It's all quite simple really.

Jessica Tearney-Pearce is a Woolf Institute Cambridge PhD candidate at St John's College and in the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on inter- and intra-cultural and confessional communication and the sharing of practices, spaces, and ideas in the pre-modern Mediterranean, and her current project examines religions at sea and in maritime contexts.

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