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More Than The Game: Equal Pay For Equal Play

At the beginning of September, the English Football Association announced – sadly, to the vocal chagrin of some loutish ‘fans’ – their commitment to paying the men’s and women’s national teams equally in terms of match fees and match bonuses, with the fee understood to be around £1000 per game.

Despite this, the money England’s male and female players can earn from major tournaments differs enormously because of the gender disparity in prize money offered by FIFA and UEFA. Had England won the women’s World Cup last year, the players would have received £50,000 each in FA bonuses. By contrast, the men would have got £217,000 apiece for winning the 2018 World Cup. These bonuses are paid out of the FIFA prize fund. Whereas the French FA got $38m in prize money for its team’s triumph at the 2018 World Cup, the US Soccer federation received only $4m for winning the 2019 women’s competition. In total, FIFA awarded $30m to the competing women’s teams and $400m to the men.

England joins Australia, New Zealand, Norway, as well as perennial stars Brazil, in being part of a small group of nations that pay their male and female players the same amount for earning a cap. “There is no more gender difference, the CBF is treating men and women equally,” according to Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) chief Rogerio Caboclo. The CBF said it would give both genders the same daily allowance while they are on international duty and pay them the same prize money for success in the Olympics. Caboclo, however, said any prize money from the World Cup would be proportionally equal to what FIFA, football’s governing body, pays the competing nations, due, again, to governing bodies like FIFA offering vastly different sums for men and women. While the clear stratification of men and women’s football is beginning to be rectified at a national level, our sporting institutions and bureaucracies still leave much to be desired in terms of the prestige, wealth, and glory granted to the women’s game.

Despite the fact that the US women’s national team’s efforts to obtain equal pay was recently rebuffed, progress is being made, albeit slowly. While the international game is where most of the growth in relevance and popularity can be seen, in the past few years the domestic game has begun to catch up; and, like every societal freedom they have secured thus far, women have to struggle arduously against the weight of public opinion, elite feet dragging, and vile sexism in order to gain respect and material compensation from their chosen profession.

“We are in an environment that excludes us daily and despises us. A large part of society believes that women are not capable of playing football and that we should not exercise our right to practise it.” These are the words of Macarena Sanchez, a 27-year-old forward and self-described ‘football feminist’ who has been passionately taking up the fight for women’s rights in Argentina.

From 2012 to 2019, she played for UAI Urquiza in the Campeonato de Fútbol Femenino, the highest level of women’s football in Argentina. Unlike their hopeless men’s team, who reside in only the third tier of the national structure, Urquiza’s women’s team is one of the most successful in the country, with only regional powerhouses Boca Juniors and River Plate having won more championships since 1991.

“It’s very frustrating,” Sánchez told The Guardian’s Suzanne Wrack. “They have better salaries, better conditions and can live by being footballers. We, unfortunately, can’t. We have better results, more championships, and we have even played international tournaments, but we are seen as inferior just for being women.”

This roots from the disheartening fact that Argentinian women’s football is not professional. Instead of salaries, players are limited to per diem expenses and given part-time, non-sporting roles within the organisation. Since 2012, Sanchez had been supporting herself with a 400 peso per month travel allowance – the equivalent of just over £8 – and by working in the administrative department of a company connected to the Urquiza directors.

Worryingly, Urquiza’s reputation for looking after their women footballers is better than most. Sanchez revealed that a majority of clubs actually charge their players a monthly fee to compete. With many not funding the basic tenets of sporting life – including training, sustenance, mandatory safety services for games like security and an ambulance, and any expenses associated with injury, recovery and treatment – the players themselves are left to foot the bills. It’s a common complaint and not just in Argentina. In December 2018, Colombian internationals Vanessa Cordoba and Melissa Ortiz described why they had walked away from their national team commitments, citing poor facilities, weak training ground structure, and non-payment of expenses.

In January 2019, Macarena Sanchez discovered first-hand just how precarious women footballer’s careers can be: Urquiza announced that she was no longer required as a footballer – ostensibly due to her political activity and staunch defence of both women’s and worker’s rights – and, as signings can be completed only at the end of the league campaign, she found herself without a club and unable to play football until at least the middle of 2019.

But Sanchez is an absolute firebrand. A committed feminist, she sought legal action against UAI Urquiza for compensation for her seven years of sporting service in order to highlight the gender inequality and injustice which permeates the game. She had little interest in any possible pecuniary benefit and instead, used the case to take aim at a social (and footballing) culture which is, in her words, ‘retrograde, misogynistic and macho’. With her distinctive fire, Sanchez expatiated: “I think clubs do not want us to be recognised as professionals because it bothers them that a woman can occupy places that have been historically occupied by men. The macho thinking of the people who have power is the only thing that prevents the professionalisation.”

While those opposed to paying women players draw on the trite arguments about a lack of coverage, interest, and commercial viability, Sanchez contends that the perceived lack of interest is an illusion perpetuated by promotional and broadcasting inertia.

The recent history of the Argentinian national team supports those grievances and also testifies to the derisory attitudes surrounding women’s football. The national team went on strike in 2017 over the non-payment of a $10 stipend and in 2018, Adidas made the decision to use models rather than players to promote the shirt designed for that year’s Copa America. Vanessa Cordoba, mentioned above, describes a similar belittlement: Adidas used star player James Rodríguez to represent the men’s team for unveiling new jerseys, but recruited a former Miss Universe, Paulina Vega Dieppa, to promote the women’s jerseys. While these are complaints familiar to female footballers worldwide, they seem particularly pervasive in South America and conform to a long history of neglect.  Some of the incidents reported throughout the years are quite dispiriting, such as when Estudiantes won the league title, but the federation ‘forgot’ to give them a trophy and, worse, Gabriel Tamrgo, president of Colombian club Deportes Tolima, referring to women’s football as “a breeding ground for lesbianism”.

Macarena Sanchez’s aims, of course, do not begin and end with her own, justly due financial compensation. She intended to donate part of her settlement in aid of the development of women’s football in Argentina. More specifically, she hoped to use the case as a means to catalyse local professionalism and to also guarantee the rights denied to her and her contemporaries for future generations. “We need to have medical coverage, we need a legal safeguard that protects us, we need to be part of the union of working footballers of Argentina (Futbolistas Argentinos Agremiados)”, she declared. “We need that our rights stop being violated. And it’s important because we want to live from football, we want to play football and be able to enjoy it.” 

Sanchez originates from Sante Fe, sacred ground in Argentinian football and the birthplace of legends of the game Gabriel Batistuta, Jorge Valdano, and Lionel Messi. After her successful lawsuit pressured the Argentine Football Association (AFA) into professionalizing the women’s league, she too has left an indelible mark on the ever-unfurling history of the game.

However, pay is still highly unequal between men and women at the top levels. The salaries in the professional women’s league are equivalent to those for men in the country’s fourth division. Moreover, the lack of television contracts given to the women’s league has made it difficult for their clubs to generate revenue. These barriers portray vividly that, while much has been done, this is only the start of the overhaul needed to achieve gender equality in Argentine soccer.

The encroaching progressivism of the modern game is warmly welcomed, but there is much to be done; our society’s obligation to equality necessitates that we justly compensate everyone for their contribution. The bigot’s response to the coming tidal wave of inclusivity is that ‘women’s football isn’t entertaining enough to warrant a fair wage’. Tell that to the 1.2 billion enthused spectators of the 2019 Women’s World Cup – I guarantee you they’d laugh in your face.