In a sense, a World Cup is a proving ground. Every moment has the potential to launch a career. For the Women’s World Cup, that’s even more the case. It is often the best chance for players to secure professional contracts that might come some way close to providing a living wage. In a sport that still suffers from unfairly limited exposure, World Cups have increased importance.
But the Women’s World Cup is too often regarded as a definitional proving ground: some kind of test of whether or not women’s football is ‘viable’. The effect of this mindset is intense scrutiny on every single action. It is a deeply problematic way of thinking.
When the World Cup, home to both the most opportunity and the most pressure, is treated as a validity test, players can no longer make mistakes. Goalkeepers know that mishandling will be held up as evidence that “women just aren’t good enough”. They know that failing to get a hand to a well-hit shot will send calls for smaller goals rocketing around the Twittersphere. Tense knockout games that get niggly become takes that women’s football “is just less interesting”. In the men’s tournament, that’s just knockout football. It’s “drama”. For the women, it’s fair justification for (some) men in the replies to sagely agree with one another that though they’ve tried so hard, they just can’t bring themselves to watch the women. “It’s just not football”.
At the World Cup, these athletes are already in a tense playing environment. Knowing that a mistake might have serious and material consequences for whether or not they get paid next season, or whether their compatriots back home deem them worthy to do what they love, is a burden. It is likely that it makes it more difficult to perform, although female footballers have always done an incredible job of blocking out toxic off-field commentary. Argentina managed to only narrowly miss the Round of 16, despite having had to sue their own Federation to be paid for their efforts and having faced death threats for doing so.
The wider theme that this fits into is one of women being treated as representatives of their whole gender. Women being devalued as athletes, as individuals, to such an extent that they no long stand or fall on their own merit but instead for the whole of “females” everywhere. Society is conducting one continuous litmus test on whether we think women are worthy.
In this World Cup, we have seen criticism of the United States celebrating too much. We have criticised Cameroon for their frustration and poor behaviour as poor examples not for young athletes, but for young girls. We have seen men uncomfortable with players wearing lipstick. With how short they wear their hair. Always, we are grappling with ideas of femininity and footballers who don’t seem to fit squarely with the construct that we made up. And each time we see these tensions come out, they fold themselves into the same questions.
Are they too feminine to play football? Is there any space for femininity in football? Should women’s football be more feminine to be valid? Are women who wear makeup when they play technically good enough?
Are these people really good enough to play football?
We have to stop treating the World Cup as a test. It isn’t there for women to prove that they are able to play football. It isn’t there for us to decide what precise shape of feminine we will allow to be called a footballer. It isn’t there to comment on the difference between men and women. Every mistake is just a mistake, not evidence of fundamental inferiority. Poor sportsmanship belongs to the individual, the team, not every women’s footballer. The World Cup is not a proving ground for the existence of women’s sport. It is a chance for strong and talented athletes to show what they can do with 90 minutes and a football. That’s what helps to make that photo of Megan Rapinoe, brilliantly taken by Franck Fife, so iconic. With arms held aloft, chin tilted up and a ball buried in the back of the net, Rapinoe is saying ‘here I am, here I stay, and I am good at what I do’. She’s right. Win, lose, succeed or fail, these athletes have nothing more to prove in order to be given the respect and opportunities they deserve.
A lover of the game since the age of 4. Living and playing for club and school in Auckland and loving every second on the pitch (apart from the end of a losing match).