Women taking their place on the pitch

Date: January 28, 2010
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The current football fervour resulting from the Africa Cup of Nations is just a small sample of what is to come when South Africa hosts the World Cup this coming June. Young footballers across the continent are watching and cheering on their local heroes. Some of the regions’ young women players are among the fans, even though they are often left out on the pitch.

Women soccer players do not enjoy the same prestige, fame and glamour that their male counterparts experience in the world’s most popular sports game. Women in soccer – referees, players and coaches – each have their battles in the game, often citing challenges and discrimination, both physical and emotional. Speaking to some young female players, they recall being labeled lesbians or accused of taking “men’s place” and forgetting “their place in the kitchen.”

According to Acting Vice President of the South African Women’s Football Association (SAWFA), Molegadi Molelekoa, people know about women’s soccer but are not enticed to watch it because it has not been well developed as a sport. “They just go and laugh at them, they watch it with the wrong perception. They look at how big they are, how they are built. In sports we shouldn’t discriminate because of somebody’s physique,” Mololekoa said.

According to Molelekoa more men than women attend women’s games because women do not want to associate themselves with soccer, due to the way they were brought up.
On the other hand, Molelekoa also says some men are quite impressed by the level of professionalism in women’s games, which encourages them to return to more matches.

For Neo Sello of the Chosen Few soccer team, soccer is where her “comfort zone” is. “I prefer soccer over netball. I’ve tried other sports but was not successful. People think only men are supposed to play soccer but women are equal to men and can play soccer too,” Sello said.

Sello adds that although most women in her team are lesbian, “straight” women can also play the game. According to Sello, more women watch their soccer, while men just critisise. “Men need to be taught about women’s soccer,” she added.

Aside from cultural and social stereotypes, lack of resources is a big challenge for women’s soccer. As a result, the sport has remained somewhat stagnant and informal.
The media is also one of the main culprits contributing to current perceptions surrounding women’s soccer, by not affording it the necessary coverage. The media gives little or no coverage to women’s soccer, or if they do, it is negative.

Malawian sports journalist Mabvuto Kambuwe recalls his country’s media reporting on female referees who failed the “Cooper Test,” initiated by FIFA, while all referees both male and female failed the test. “Coverage by these local papers also contributes to the increased abuse and intimidation of female referees as they reinforce stereotypes that women referees are failures and cannot handle matches at higher level,” Kambuwe added.

The Malawian journalist also revealed that female referees are harassed in his country. Fans even beat one female referee after their team lost.

Kaombona Kanani, a journalist from Botswana, also attributes blames the media for not promoting female soccer events, but adds that players themselves must take a more pro-active role. “I am not much of a soccer person, but I have never had a situation that encouraged me to want to watch a women’s game. Even the women themselves they do not promote their games,” he said.

On a more positive note, Fran Hilton, Manager of Women’s International Teams and Women’s Football Administrator at the South African Football Association said women’s soccer is growing in popularity in the country, especially in the last year, because of sponsorships from big companies such as SASOL and ABSA.

“There has been a huge upsurge in women’s football. Before 2000, women didn’t have any sponsor, until SANLAM came in with a minor sponsorship. Sanlam made huge profits out of the sponsorship and decided to stay on board, prompting others to come on board,” said Hilton.

According to Hilton, the creation of the Women’s World Cup also contributed. “Parents are now allowing girls to play football, as women can now live off their soccer careers,” she pointed out.

Hilton started an Academy for Girls football in Cape Town, the only one of its kind in Africa, coaching 25 girls fulltime from all over the country. The academy offers a fully paid opportunity including education, such as free university training, enticing parents to see the opportunity in soccer for girls.

Hilton adds that historically girls had to look like boys to play football, but this notion has since changed in recent years. “This has changed. Many girls playing in Banyana Banyana are models; they are beautiful girls. Football is not a men’s sport only, like netball, football is all about a ball, but only netball is seen as the accepted sport for girls,” Hilton stated.

According to Hilton, Banyana Banyana and Basetsane, the women teams in South Africa, attract lot men, because they are some of the most skillful women players in the world, thus both women and men watch it.

Similar to the previous sources, Hilton also highlights challenges in the women’s game, saying it is a very difficult arena for women to venture into, especially with regard to coaching, where men grab all coaching opportunities.

“Ninety percent of women teams are owned by men and they want to coach them, themselves,” she added. Hilton coaches both men and women and spends time all over the world, especially in developing countries. She noted that Southern Africa is coming along in women’s soccer, especially in Namibia and Botswana where the game is quite developed compared to the rest of the region.

The issue of funding hampers the progress of the women’s game. Hilton stated that FIFA only spends about 15% of their budget on women’s sports, meant for development and not necessarily for taking part in tournaments.

“Money plays a crucial role in women soccer, as teams often withdraw from tournaments, especially African teams. One international game costs about R600 000, thus funding is crucial,” Hilton. Africa has three spots in the Women’s World Cup, but only used one during the last event because of lack of funding.

Despite talent, many young women are not jumping onto the pitch to the play. Hopefully, when it comes time for the next Women’s World Cup, we will see some of the same football fever we are seeing now for the men’s game.

Ingrid Hoaes is a journalist in Zimbabwe. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, produced during a “Business Unusual” workshop.




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