As 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup begins, a look at female footballers' fight for gender equality

Amit Kamath

"We do not have balls. But we know how to use them!"

So goes a line in a viral video featuring the German women's football team. The video €" created by the German team's sponsor, Commerzbank, and posted on social media by broadcaster DW Sports €" highlights the struggles of female footballers.

Such as when the German women's team was given a tea set for winning the 1989 European Championships.

Women's football has certainly seen tremendous improvements in the time since.

At the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup, the England women's football team will wear bespoke kits when they take the pitch €" the first time they won't be sharing a kit design with the men's squad.

As they gear up for the World Cup, the Australian women's football team, nicknamed the Matildas, will be afforded the same sort of investment that their men's team was, when they were preparing for the 2018 World Cup.

The 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup €" expected to be the most-watched edition of the tournament in history €" will showcase how much progress the women's game has made over the years.

But the path has seldom been smooth for female players, who have had to fight their way in each step taken towards equal rights.

With the 2019 edition underway, here's an anecdotal look at the issues women footballers have faced since the last FIFA Women's World Cup concluded in 2015.

May 2019:

Despite being the world's best female footballer, Ada Hegerberg was not named in the Norway team which will play at the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup. This is because Hegerberg €" who won the Ballon d'Or last year in what was the first time a woman won an award being given to male footballers since 1956 €" has not played for Norway since 2017 due to a "lack of respect" for women's footballers.

"A lot of things need to be done to make the conditions better for women who play football," she said after winning the Ballon d'Or last year. "It's all about how we respect women's football. I don't think the respect has been there."

For the record, the Norwegian football association is one of the rare federations to pay its women's team the same salary as the men's outfit since 2017. Hegerberg said she had made her decision because of a lack of professionalism, not due to financial issues.



April 2019:

Ahead of an international friendly against Germany in Stockholm, Sweden defender Nilla Fischer lashed out at the inequality in international football.

"I know that if I'd played in the (German men's) Bundesliga for six years, I wouldn't have any financial worries. In terms of percentages, you can't really compare. What they maybe make in an hour, I make in a year," said Fischer.

Fischer, who was honoured as Sweden's best female player in 2018, used the awards ceremony to speak out about the regressive attitudes she faced while playing football. "I know how it feels to be mocked by the guys, because you're not good enough or someone is better. (You are told things like) 'Why don't you play on a smaller pitch?' We play because we love the sport. We play for life.  Never stop playing football, never stop fighting for gender equality. We are worth so much more," Fischer said in a rousing speech.

March 2019:

All 28 members of the US women's team filed a discrimination lawsuit against the USSF. The bone of contention? The women's team €" the world champions €" was seeking equal pay as their male counterparts, who failed to make it to the FIFA World Cup Finals.

"Each of us is extremely proud to wear the United States jersey, and we also take seriously the responsibility that comes with that. We believe that fighting for gender equality in sports is a part of that responsibility. As players, we deserved to be paid equally for our work, regardless of our gender," the US' Alex Morgan said in a statement.

February 2019:

Argentina's Macarena Sanchez sued her club UAI Urquiza and the Argentinian football federation for their refusal to recognise her as a professional player. Urquiza are one of the best women's clubs in Argentina €" they beat Boca Juniors and River Plate to the title in 2018 €" while their men's counterparts were languishing in the third tier of Argentinian club football.

Sanchez, who joined Urquiza in 2012, made ends meet by working in a part-time administrative position at a company which had links to the directors of Urquiza.

She said she was being paid the equivalent of $10 a month for expenses, while the male players had professional contracts and salaries.

Her lawsuit forced another football club, San Lorenzo de Almagro, to offer women's players the first professional contracts in April 2019. Sanchez was among the 15 women who signed contracts.

The women's league finally went professional this year with the 16 teams in the first division all giving professional contracts to some players.

February 2019:

Melissa Ortiz and Isabella Echeverri, Colombian national team players, lashed out at the country's national football federation in videos posted on social media for the treatment meted out to female players.

"We are not paid. They don't provide international flights for us. Our uniforms are old. The federation has excluded players for speaking out," the duo said in the videos. They also accused the Colombian federation of threatening to exclude them from the team for speaking out.

Colombia are the second ranked team from South America.

In the aftermath of the controversy, other Colombian players spoke out.

Tatiana Ariza, a midfielder for the national team, pointed out that the federation did not bother to organise a training camp for over 700 days after the 2012 London Olympics and for more than 400 days after the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

Catalina Rubiano, a goalkeeper for the national team, also spoke out saying that in 2017 she had had to pay for her own flight from the US to a training camp in Cali, Colombia.



November 2018:

Several members of the Afghanistan women's football team complained about sexual and physical abuse they faced at the hands of members of Afghanistan's football federation, including its president Keramuudin Karim.

A month later, players told The Guardian how Keramuudin repeatedly assaulted them sexually and physically in a secret room adjoining his office before threatening to kill them and their families if they dared tell anyone.

The report led to multiple investigations into the state of Afghanistan women's football, eventually leading to FIFA banning Keramuudin for 90 days (later extended by 90 more days).

The scandal hurt women's football in Afghanistan €" for whom the team was a symbol for the conservative country providing its women more freedom. With sponsors pulling out, players were the ones who were hit financially. Many female players said that they were facing pressure from their families to quit football after the scandal was out in the open.

One Afghan women's team which was playing in Uzbekistan bore the brunt of taunts from expatriate Afghans living there during a match. According to Reuters, the abuse reduced many players to tears in the dressing room of Tashkent's stadium.

October 2018:

The players unions of Australia, Norway, Sweden and New Zealand wrote to FIFA pointing out the vastly disproportionate sums of money allocated for the Women's World Cup as opposed to the men's showpiece event.

Following this, the FIFA Council ratified a new financial package for the 2019 Women's World Cup in France, which FIFA President Gianni Infantino branded as 'progress'.

As per the package, the total prize money for Women's World Cup teams in 2019 doubled, from $15 million to $30 million. For comparison, the total prize money for men's teams participating in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will be $440 million.

The 2019 Women's World Cup-winning team will receive $4 million, double the amount of what 2015 champions USA received. For context, the French men's team received $38 million for winning the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

 Also €"

When the Jamaican women's team became the first team from the Caribbean to make the cut for the FIFA Women's World Cup, it was revealed that the team was being kept afloat solely by Cedella Marley, the daughter of the legendary Bob Marley.

The Jamaican Football Federation (JFF) had disbanded the women's team in 2010 after cutting funding for them altogether. The Jamaicans then fell off the rankings after being inactive for three years. This was when Cedella came on board as their ambassador in 2014 and helped the team regroup by sponsoring them through the Bob Marley Foundation.

Additionally €"

Twelve New Zealand players flagged the conduct of national coach Andreas Heraf, who the players allege "bullied" and "harassed" them during the national team's tours to Spain and New Zealand.

As a result of the allegations and the consequent threat by several female players that they will never play for the national team should Heraf stay in charge, New Zealand Football (NZF) ordered an inquiry into the culture in women's football in New Zealand.

The three-month-long sweeping review, undertaken by employment lawyer Phillipa Muir, noted that the culture at NZF was widely thought to be a "boys club". It pointed out that there were no women in its senior leadership team while only 21 percent of its total staff was female. It also pointed out that in the past NZF had "tolerated inappropriate banter" in some areas of the organisation.

Only months before the report was made public, the New Zealand women's team had made international headlines for a revolutionary deal with New Zealand Football, which gave women's national team players equal match payments, travel arrangements and prize money.

However, Muir noted in the report that NZF had tried to betray the agreement at the first opportunity by not booking business-class flights for women's national team footballers. They eventually yielded, but only after the players threatened to go public.



March 2018:

Manchester United, veritable giants of club football, announce their decision to set-up a women's football team €" over a 100 years after the men's team came into existence.

October 2017:

The Denmark women's team missed a World Cup qualifier against Sweden and a friendly game against the Netherlands due to a dispute over payments with the Danish Football Association (DBU).

The DBU and the women's team players were in negotiations for nine months before the team decided to miss the Netherlands friendly. The players had been angered by a deal where the DBU tried to stipulate that the women national team were no longer employees of the federation. In order to help the two parties reach an agreement, the Danish men's national team even offered to give the women's team £60,000 a year from their agreement with the DBU.

The two parties eventually reached an agreement in November by signing a four-year collective bargaining agreement.

 October 2017:

Brazilian women's national team players started a revolt against the national federation after the coach, Emily Lima, was sacked. Lima's ouster led to five players quitting the national team besides many signing an explosive letter lampooning the national federation for its treatment of women.

"We, the players, have invested years of our own lives and all of our energy to build this team and this sport to its strength today. Yet we, and almost all other Brazilian women, are excluded from the leadership and decision-making for our own team and our own sport," read the letter, which was signed by eight former players such as Cristiane, Francielle, Sissi, Rosana and Formiga.

Cristiane and Francielle were among the players who quit saying that they were "exhausted from years of disrespect and lack of support."

In a YouTube video explaining her reasoning for quitting, Cristiane said, "I dealt with it for 17 years. But I can't anymore."

June 2017:

The Scotland national women's team held a media blackout over issues they raised about finances, support and respect given to women footballers.

They eventually reached an agreement with the Scottish Football Association.

April 2017:

The women's football team of the Republic of Ireland threatened to go on strike after accusing the national body, Football Association of Ireland (FAI), of not providing the team with "adequate support".

Thirteen players alleged in a press conference that they had had to change in public toilets at airports when travelling to matches and had also had to share tracksuits with youth-team players, according to a report in The Guardian.

The FAI, in response, released a statement where they blamed the players by claiming that they had tried to bring the players to the table on five occasions €" to discuss clear and tangible financial offers for the payment and compensation €" but their offers had been rebuffed.

After mediation discussions, the two parties finally reached an agreement.

December 2016:

The Nigerian women's team held a sit-in protest in their hotel in Abuja after the national federation failed to pay them the allowances and bonuses they were owed for winning the Women's Africa Cup of Nations earlier that week, according to a report on

The Nigerian's women's team are heavyweights of the game in Africa €" that title in 2016 was their eighth at the continental level.

June 2015:

The 2015 World Cup was the first time the Spanish team made it to the Women's World Cup. They had never made it to the Olympics. But the team crashed out in the group stage. Once home, the players released a statement in which they pointed out reasons for the defeat: lack of preparations (the team played just five friendlies in preparation for the 2015 World Cup after sealing qualification in 2014), insufficient preparation for the matches, poor acclimatisation to the host country, and the lack of analysis of opponents.

But their bigger grouse was against head coach Ignacio Quereda, who at the time of the 2015 World Cup had been at the helm of the national team for 27 years. The statement detailed in quite some detail how the manager had ill-treated his players.

Querada, the players wrote, called them "chavalitas" (immature little girls) or "niñas" (little girls). He had also resorted to calling some players fat whenever he was displeased by their fitness levels and had yelled at players till the point they broke down.

The other grievance players aired in the statement was about his vindictive nature, illustrated by his refusal to call up even the best players if they ever got on his bad side. He was sacked almost a month after the statement.

Also See: FIFA Women's World Cup 2019: USA, Japan lead the way towards recognition of women's game by outshining men's sides

FIFA Women's World Cup 2019: From USA's Rose Lavelle to Australia's Sam Kerr, top players to watch out for in 24-nation tournament

FIFA Women's World Cup 2019: United States favourites to retain title in toughest-ever competition

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