On Football and Feminism

The power of sport can never be underestimated - with football being the most tribally consumed sports of them all. Football binds communities, families and friends, and the English Football League has a great socio-economic impact on England.  Over the past year, I have thought at length about how the football industry could be at odds with my feminist beliefs. Unsurprisingly, statistics and facts point towards football being the least representative and most unequal industry in the world.

The ludicrous salaries of male footballers is common knowledge - Man United forward Alexis Sanchez is the highest paid footballer within the Premier League, earning £315,000 a week despite not playing a full 90 minute game in the season. Brazilian player Neymar earned £32.9m from French club Paris St-Germain for the 2017-18 season for playing for them (excluding lucrative sponsorship deals). His earnings in a single season were practically the same as every single woman playing in the world’s top seven women’s football leagues - that’s 1,693 women at the top of their industry, earning collectively the same as one man. Most highly skilled women are unable to play the sport professionally. Out of the professional footballers in the world, less than 1% of them are women. This is less than women engineers (11% of the world total) and pilots (5%) as well as male nurses, which is currently around 9%. It’s hard to see how women will ever be taken seriously when wage structures like this send the message that football is not a viable career for women.

On top of this, the English Football League in a number of ways, breeds a culture that makes it a difficult atmosphere for openness in sexuality. There is currently no openly homosexual men within the 500 players in the Premier League. Despite campaigns such as ‘Rainbow Laces’ from Stonewall, endorsed by the Premier League, the statistical anomaly remains the same - either players don’t feel they can come out for their reputation (likely), maybe suppressing thoughts or feelings because of the environment of football clubs (also likely) or maybe, none are gay (very unlikely). Referee Ryan Atkin became football’s first public out professional in the UK in 2017. Whilst positive that there is now some form of presence in football, its undoubtedly a shame that it took so long, and that representation remains so sparse.

Those at the top, winning, should be setting the example for others if there’s any hope of change for the better. Manchester City men’s team, winners of the last two Premier League seasons, have become a dominant force in global football. Their assent to such heights  correlated with the take over by the Abu Dhabi United Group and it’s owner, Sheikh Mansour. Mansour is also the deputy prime minister of United Arab Emirates. Manchester City has been transformed and substantially developed in this time from an around £1.3 billion investment of his family’s fortune. The integrity of such investment, has been questioned. UAE have horrific human rights abuses against many people, particularly women. Many laws continue to discriminate against Emirati women, such as they must seek permission from a “male guardian” to remarry. It is also criminal to be a homosexual in the UAE. I feel that it is morally abhorrent that people that endorse such laws should directly profit from western consumption of their football club.

The loyal nature of football fans means that most Manchester City fans are turning a blind eye to this, even when pressure was put on the club to influence the UAE following their life imprisonment  of Matthew Hedges, a British PhD student who was convicted of spying with flimsy evidence and no fair trial. In fact many fans spoke out in defence of the UAE. A term has been introduced for this, dubbed ‘sportswashing’, where states use sports to improve their reputation and perception of their human rights records.  Amnesty International made the following statement last year -

“The UAE’s enormous investment in Manchester City is one of football’s most brazen attempts to ‘sportswash’ a country’s deeply tarnished image through the glamour of the game. The success of the club has involved a close relationship with a country that relies on exploited migrant labour and locks up peaceful critics and human rights defenders’.

The past season has led to many racism in football stories in the media. This is certainly not a new issue and something players have suffered from for much of their professional lives. Vile abuse has been caught on camera towards players, bananas have been thrown as a racist attack, and slurs have been shouted at England players. The punishments for all offenses have been pitiful. It does not end with fans, media outlets have been criticised for their unfair and disproportionate harsh coverage on BAME players. Raheem Sterling spoke out on the issue over Instagram the day after he was abused by Chelsea supporters, comparing media coverage on two young players at his club, Manchester City.


"For example you have two young players starting out their careers, both play for the same team, both [did] the right thing which is buy[ing] a new house for their mothers who have put in a lot of time and love into helping them get where they are.

"But look how the newspapers get their message across for the young black player and then for the young white player," Sterling added, comparing Mail articles about Tosin Adarabioyo and Phil Foden.

"I think this is unacceptable. Both innocent have not done a thing wrong but just by the way it has been worded this young black kid is looked at in a bad light, which helps fuel racism and aggressive behaviour.

"So for all the newspapers that don't understand why people are racist in this day and age, all I have to say is have a second thought about fair publicity and give all players an equal chance."

Nothing bigoted or hateful that happens in football is unique to that world. Football acts as a microcosm to the rest of society. The gender pay gap is widening, despite legislation requiring companies to publish it. LGBT+ communities remain underrepresented in business, culture and in the media. The rich get richer and are untouchable despite their countless discriminatory behaviours. Racism is a real and constant struggle and trauma for BAME people in the UK every day.

It is now I ask you to not steer away from football further, but to consume it. This summer marks the Women’s World Cup in France. Despite your opinion on football, I feel I can safely say that every person living in England last year was aware that the Men’s World Cup was going on. Crowds gathered, viewing figures broke records, and people of all ages, genders and jobs enjoyed it. How many know that the Women’s World Cup is starting in a mere few days?

It is important that we make vote as a consumer of sport to increase visibility of women’s football. I implore you all to watch the Women’s World Cup - support your team, watch it with your friends and family, get to know the key members of the World Cup squad. Follow their journeys on social media and cheer them on.

I will continue to consume and enjoy the English Football League. In 2016/2017 the Premier League had sizeable impacts on the English economy -

  • £3.3 billion taxes paid.

  • 100,000 jobs supported

  • £7.6 billion gross value added impact.

  • Substantial local contributions.

I see no downside to women’s football reaching the same heights as the men’s English Football League, and multiplying these benefits. Of course, it’s not as simple as that when battling institutional discirmination in society. But increasing visibility within your friends and family is a start.

BBC Sport will have coverage of every single game. Group stage matches start on Friday 7th June at 20:00 GMT.

Article by Gina Chapman