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Now is football’s moment to change

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One non-consensual kiss encapsulated what women’s football has always been up against. The scandal transcends the cartoon villain, Luis Rubiales, president of the Spanish football federation, who kissed Jenni Hermoso, one of Spain’s world champions, on the lips in her moment of supreme victory. The kiss — the grotesque climax of the women’s World Cup, the best-attended female football tournament ever — symbolises the sexist domination of the women’s game way beyond Spain. This needs to be an “enough” moment. Female football finally has the status to shove aside men like Rubiales.

The kiss was atypical only in that it was public. Usually, harassment in women’s football happens behind closed doors. There is “entrenched abuse in soccer federations and at national academies, where many young female players must endure sexual abuse during their training”, reports Human Rights Watch.

Just among World Cup teams, the president of Haiti’s football federation and Zambia’s coach have been accused of sexual misconduct (which they both deny). Colombian football is rife with it. This January, the leading US professional women’s league banned four coaches for life, two for repeated sexual misconduct and verbal abuse, the other two for emotional abuse and racist and sexist remarks. Then the French federation’s president, Noël Le Graët, stepped down after a state inspectorate accused him of mis-steps including “inappropriate behaviour . . . towards women”.

Women’s football expects little support from male authorities. Look at the other male leaders involved in last week’s final: Gianni Infantino, president of governing body Fifa, told women they needed to “convince us men what we have to do” to achieve equality. Prince William, president of England’s Football Association, didn’t bother attending his country’s first World Cup final in 57 years.

Women have been treated as intruders in a “man’s game” since 1881, when the second-ever official football match, Scotland vs England, was abandoned after hundreds of men stormed the field, forcing players to flee in a horse-drawn bus. Many leading national federations banned female football until the 1970s or 1980s. Tamara Ramos, head of the women’s footballers’ trade union in Spain, who says Rubiales once asked her what colour underwear she was wearing, explains the power dynamic: “As a woman, of whom there are few in the world of football, it was very difficult to confront him.”

That changed last week. Now women’s teams are confronting power together. England’s defeated Lionesses backed their Spanish opponents. The US star Megan Rapinoe told The Atlantic: “We’re playing two games at the same time. One, we’re playing all against each other. And then . . . we’re all playing together to win equality and progress and what we deserve . . . ”

They are speaking up now partly because they finally have some power. Spain’s players are boycotting their national team until the current leadership goes. With women’s club football booming, they are decently paid professionals independent of the federation. Their voices are being heard. They don’t have to take it anymore.

Football must now become as welcoming to females as it is to males, both at neighbourhood clubs and at World Cups. There should be as many fields for girls as for boys, and enforceable sexual-harassment codes. The role models are Norway and the US, which have female federation presidents, and equal pay for male and female internationals.

Football would profit from going gender-equal. The male game is a mature industry. The growth will come on the women’s side. The World Cup showed the enormous, mostly untapped female interest in football. That should be fed weekly. In spring 2022, Barcelona’s women’s team twice drew crowds of more than 90,000 (albeit with cheap tickets). These weren’t simply the largest attendances in female football history. They were larger than all crowds at European men’s games that season.

But growing the women’s game isn’t just about generating revenues, and producing stars like Hermoso. Football, a life-long source of community and joy, should never have been a male-only domain.

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