Monday, May 12, 2014
Perhaps because it is a world-wide sport or perhaps because it has a long history, but soccer has managed to stay at the forefront when it comes to women’s issues. As a bellwether of women’s social advances, soccer either precedes them or supports them. In 1894, Nettie Honeyball founded the British Ladies Football Club, which played vigorous and popular games throughout Great Britain. They used the men’s association fields and often had crowds topping 45,000, larger than the men’s teams were mustering. As Honeyball said, "I founded the association late last year, with the fixed resolve of proving to the world that women are not the ‘ornamental and useless’ creatures men have pictured. I must confess, my convictions on all matters where the sexes are so widely divided are all on the side of emancipation, and I look forward to the time when ladies may sit in Parliament and have a voice in the direction of affairs, especially those which concern them most." Clearly, she saw the link between soccer and women’s rights. Her philosophy of the intertwining of sports and women’s rights soon got vindication — only negatively. Citing that women playing the game was “unseemly,” the Football Association in 1921 forbid women’s teams to use the men’s fields, a ban that lasted 50 years. Nevertheless, there has been a women’s season of soccer in Great Britain every year since 1894 to the present. And the political status of women has steadily improved.
The international community was slower in accepting women in the sport, only sanctioning Olympic participation in 1996. Women’s basketball, on the other hand, found a strong supportive home in the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), which not only recognized women’s participation in the contests, but set up the first international competition in 1953 — which has continued every four years since. The Olympics added women’s basketball to the games in 1976. Women’s soccer had to struggle a bit more to gain the sanctioning of the world’s soccer association, FIFA. Non-FIFA leagues existed in the 1960s, formed by women in countries such as England, Germany, Mexico and India. Despite the restrictive regulations unsympathetic to women, teams flourished using rugby grounds when soccer pitches were prohibited to them. Germany, Brazil, France and England all had long stretches where they banned women’s soccer in their countries. Nevertheless, women persevered, circumventing the restrictions through creative choices in where they played and how they organized. In 1970, the first World Cup was played in Italy, as Denmark defeated Italy, 2-0. The second was in 1971 in front of 100,000 fans in Mexico between Denmark (3) and Mexico (0). Amazingly, although FIFA likes to brag about the 90,800 who attended the Women’s World Cup final at the Rose Bowl in 1999 as the largest audience for a women’s sporting event, they were nearly 10,000 off the mark. Interestingly, FIFA did sponsor a contest in April 1971 between France and The Netherlands in front of only 1,500 fans. FIFA celebrated this event in 2011 as the 40th anniversary of women’s international competition, touting its amazing growth during those years, even though that anniversary isn’t even remotely correct in the real world of women’s international soccer.
In other areas of the game, soccer has been a leader concerning women. FIFA certification to referee is not gender-specific, although few women have been called up to officiate at men’s games. The first women referees in the MLS began in 1998, in 2004 a woman oversaw a men’s World Cup qualifier, and women now routinely get the call to ref at level two of men’s professional leagues in Europe. FIFA’s rules require that anyone wanting to be certified to officiate at international games must first do so at the highest level in their own country. In the U.S., that meant the MLS, but as women have developed stronger, more stable professional leagues, female refs can get their experience there. In all cases, FIFA referees must retire at age 45 and few referees make a living at their craft. Think about that the next time you scream at a referee — he or she is most likely doing the job out of love for the sport, while surrounded by multi-millionaire players. In other male-dominated sports, women have not made headway as much as they have in soccer. During the 2012 NFL referee lock-out, Shannon Eastin, who has officiated minor league football games, got called up to be a line judge. Once the lock-out was resolved, Eastin got booted. In 1997, the NBA allowed Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner to ref games, but only Palmer still does. In the MLB, one woman, Bernice Gera, has called a Class A game in 1972 but she had to sue the league for the opportunity. She was followed by Pam Postema, who umpired spring training games beginning in 1989, although she was eventually fired. Ria Cortesio also umpired exhibition games in 2007. That same year, she was denied further promotion and was released by MLB. In fact, in the U.S., only 10 women officiate at men’s professional sports games. At one time, there were three women officials in the MLS, but all have retired.
The final frontier for women in a men’s world would be coaching, and this week Clermont Foot, a second tier club in France, hired Helena Costas to take the reigns as manager at the end of the season. Costas has been the coach of the women’s national teams in Qatar and Iran, so she has plenty of experience surviving in male-dominated cultures. She recently stated, “I opened a door today and more women will walk through on my back.” Besides coaching, she has served as a scout for the Scottish men’s club Celtic and, for 13 years, has been the manager of one of Portugal’s Benfica boys’ teams. Claude Michy, the president of Clermont Foot, has been surprised by the interest in Costa’s hiring, because “in the world there are lots of women in important positions…But because it’s football — something global and still rather conservative…it creates a media earthquake.” Fabien Farnolle, a goalkeeper on the team, said, “On a personal note, I feel everything that goes in the direction of progress — away from discrimination against race, gender or religion — is positive.” Hopefully more clubs will share in that opinion. Looking just at France, there are few women agents, and no female club presidents or head coaches. Costa breaks this barrier with a strong soccer history, including her 13 years with Benfica, directing the Qatar and Iran Women’s National Teams, and as a holder of the UEFA Pro License, the highest level available to European soccer coaches. Being a woman wasn’t a significant factor in her hiring, although it was a factor. The front office was looking for a top-level experienced coach who could bring some excitement to a team that is overshadowed by rugby in their town. Her gender adds some spark, but her credentials insure the promise of success.
The strength of women’s soccer needs to be matched by the strength of women in soccer. While the U.S. has one of the most powerful programs in the world, that has not transferred over in terms of coaching, officiating, scouting and ownership with men’s teams. There is no social law that requires men and women to crossover in terms of power, but given that the opportunities for advancement, monetary compensation and exposure give the edge to the men, it would be wonderful to see those prospects shared equally. Even the female referees argue that having experience with both men’s and women’s games improves their skills. Considered one of the best, most experienced soccer referees in the world without regard to gender, Karen Seitz argues that men need to work women’s games and women need to work men’s games to get the most accumulated knowledge of the craft. Sandy Hunt, who retired several years ago and works as a referee assessor, sees her impact as a woman in a predominately male profession in universal terms. “When you’re the only one doing it, you’re holding the door open for the other women who want a chance. All I want to do is advance the ball. I don’t feel I need to score a goal. If I can just keep my foot in the door and do a solid job, people — men or women, maybe of color, minorities or whatever — should get just as fair a chance.” This responsibility of the sport to promote cutting edge policies not only helps soccer advance, but also opens doors for far-ranging participants in the sport. The more we pursue these advanced programs, the more we ensure equality and strength in the game.