On International Women’s Day it is important to celebrate and acknowledge the progress made towards equality and the achievements of women in sport. It is perhaps even more important, though, to look at how much more still needs to be done.
After a phenomenal European Championship last year with a cumulative audience of 365 million live viewers and England lifting a first major trophy, you could be forgiven for believing the roadmap to success and growth was clear. The Lionesses are one of the most heavily invested-in teams in the world, with a support structure to rival men’s teams. As a result, success on the pitch, sponsorship deals and sell-out crowds have become the norm. It is not a given that investment leads to success but it gives players and teams the greatest possible opportunity to perform to their best abilities.
Yet, just four months from what is almost certain to be the biggest Women’s World Cup in history, the tournament is at risk of becoming seriously undermined by the fissure between the demands of elite players and their federations.
After Spain booked their World Cup place, 15 members of the squad wrote to the federation, the RFEF, making themselves unavailable for selection and alleging that the “situation” within the team was affecting their “emotional state” and “health”. The players insisted they had not called for the resignation of the coach, Jorge Vilda, but said they were unhappy with his methods and group management.
The RFEF came down firmly against the player revolt, with none of the 15 having played for the team since and Vilda picking youth and uncapped players to fill his squads. The likelihood of 15 of the best players from one of the top nations missing the World Cup is high.
Vilda and his family have a long association with the federation. He and his father, Ángel Vilda, a fitness coach under Johan Cruyff at Barcelona, were appointed alongside Pedro López and two other members of staff to work on the women’s set-up 15 years ago.
The situation is not dissimilar in France, where a long-term breakdown in the relationship between the manager, Corine Diacre, and her players has reached crunch point, with the captain Wendie Renard, then the forwards Marie-Antoinette Katoto and Kadidiatou Diani, announcing they would not play at the World Cup to preserve their mental health.
The resignation of the president of the French football federation, Noël Le Graët, after an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct which he denies, is likely to lead to a resolution. Le Graët was a supporter of Diacre and after his exit the FFF board selected a four-person working group to decide Diacre’s future by the next board meeting on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the fact that the Olympic gold medal-winning Canada team had to threaten to strike to force Canada Soccer’s hand on fairer funding and support for the team speaks to the crisis in federations around the world. Canada Soccer suggested it would take legal action if the players refused to play, before it reached an interim funding agreement.
If players at three of the world’s top 10 nations (France are fifth, Canada sixth and Spain seventh) believe they are not being treated fairly and professionally by their federations, what hope do teams further down the list have?
And at what point does it fall on Fifa and the confederations to step in and demand better for female players? As it stands, three players in the Fifpro World XI may not be at the World Cup because of these disputes.
Already, the tournament has been hit by a different but not unrelated crisis, with anterior cruciate ligament injuries within the past year to Beth Mead, Vivianne Miedema, Katoto, Alexia Putellas and Catarina Macario meaning that some of the world’s best players will not be competing in Australia and New Zealand. With female players significantly more likely to have an ACL injury than their male counterparts, the demands for investment into proper research into the prevalence of the injury are strong.
Federations – internationally, regionally and domestically – have been slow to wake to the opportunities for growth within women’s football and even slower to recognise that investing in access to the sport for half the world’s population is the right thing to do.
The slower they are to do that, the bigger the impact on that growth. If the best players miss out on the World Cup through an injury for which risks can be reduced with proper investment and research, or because of disputes over funding and respect, then the interest and legitimacy of the tournament will start to be affected.