Soccer is a microcosm of our society

Date: August 6, 2010
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South Africa is celebrating Women’s Month this August under the banner “Working together for equal opportunities and progress for all women: Forward to the decade of African women.” Yet if we look at soccer, we can see many subtle inequalities which are a true reflection of societal relations between women and men in Africa and beyond today.

Towards the beginning of the recent World Cup, when people were buying their vuvuzelas, and flags, and trying to get their hands on last-minute tickets, I too decided to join in the spirit. So I went to one of Johannesburg’s malls and bought myself a small Spain flag. I had boldly decided (in my head) that I was supporting Spain, but at the same time had to be discreet (out loud) in case the team of my choice did not perform.

Eventually I put the flag on my office desk and began to feel I was a part of history as Africa was hosting the global mega-event for the first time. I followed the games closely and was happy that my team played beautifully throughout. It was also an honour when a good sister’s hubby offered to take me to the Spain and Honduras game at Ellis Park stadium. I had a great time, being a female football fan amongst men, supporting my team of choice. And I began to feel I might be a part of history for another reason.

I had previously always dreaded going to stadiums, fearing the displays of machismo, and the public harassment from male fans who shout mocking remarks at female fans. On this particular day, though, I enjoyed every minute spent watching the game and the men sitting near me were quite respectful. For a moment I felt as if just maybe the most sexually divisive sport might be bridging the gender gap – it was maybe a World Cup of possibilities? I hoped that the transition from Soccer 2010 to South Africa’s Women’s Month might bring significant change. That moment eventually faded.

Later, when Argentina played Greece, I was impressed by the fact that Desiree Ellis, former Banyana Banyana captain, was a soccer analyst on a South Africa Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) channel. She sat on the panel with the likes of Jay Jay Okocha (former Nigeria national team player) and Kevin Keegan (former England manager). She analysed the game well and her participation was a challenge to what had been the norm. To me this scenario set a precedent, telling us that women have a space in male soccer tournaments.

So, for this woman, as the 11th of July approached, I still maintained that Spain was going to take the Cup. And I was right. Interestingly, when the last 16 were playing, my little Spanish flag disappeared from my desk. A male colleague had decided that it should sit on his workspace because as a man he was a genuine supporter and to him I was a fake supporter.

And with this I realised that my dreams about gender harmony and soccer were far from reality.

As the pitch was cleared for the last time at the men’s World Cup, the under-20 women’s World Cup kicked off in Germany from 13 July. This is the World Cup that never was; that revealed that as much as both men and women may have enjoyed the men’s 2010 games, the same could not be said of the women’s game.

The 16 teams, two from each continent, played in almost empty stadiums. Where were our male colleagues when it came to women’s soccer? Apparently men still view women’s soccer as an unusual practice aimed at disrupting the masculine sporting space they hold so dear. In addition, there was erratic media coverage and most of the games were only played late at night on local channels. Can only men make sport a world spectacle?

Ghana and Nigeria represented Africa at the U-20 women’s world cup. The Nigerian team, popularly known as the “Falconets”, sailed through to the finals and were eventually beaten by Germany. Theirs was the first African women’s team to ever reach the final of any International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) World Cup tournament. Surely this was a cause for celebration in Africa, but you wouldn’t have known it from where I sat, wondering if a Nigerian flag would have been stolen if I’d propped it on my desk.

The Nigerian women’s team, just like the Ghanaian men’s team, gave Africans pride. But it appeared that only one team was able to unify a continent and bring different tribes and countries together. I thought we had progressed beyond this dichotomy.

And then, as if the empty stands and late-night TV time slot was not enough humiliation, a Nigerian company promised the Falconets US$250 for each shot they hit on target during the tournament. In total, the players were credited 46 shots and the team was awarded US$11,500 by the company. I found this a measly gesture for a team in desperate need of resources, but more importantly for a team that made Africa proud. If this team of 22 players decided to share the money, it wouldn’t have gone very far, especially when you consider that The Netherlands – as the runner-up at the men’s World Cup – was reportedly paid US$24 million in prize money.

It seems soccer is a microcosm of male-female relations in our society. And as we commemorate Women’s Day, I think it’s clear we have a lot more work to do to achieve equality.

Because no matter how many women cheered teams from the office, the stadiums or the comfort of their homes, soccer is still a masculine space and the men’s FIFA 2010 World Cup is its “natural” global sporting event.

Despite all my hopes for change at the beginning of this Soccer 2010 season, it seems “the beautiful game” remains one sport that continues to perpetuate gender inequalities in a sphere which is still very much the preserve of men. Next time I might just leave my flag at home.

Saenna Chingamuka is the Gender and Media Diversity Centre Programme Officer at Gender Links. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service.

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