Reconstructing the meaning of the ‘Beautiful Game’: The Football World Cup 2019
From start to finish, this World Cup has openly and overtly been a rallying cry from its participants, fans and the limited, largely independent media, for change. The feminist overtones of this mega event are of a magnitude not experienced in its previous incarnations. Historians and commentators of the game (eg the Burn It All Down podcast members) have effectively charted the slow pace of change in this most male of professions, which has certainly been evident in FIFA’s reluctance to even showcase women’s football through its World Cup brand. It wasn’t until 1991 that an international women’s football event was held, to later become known as the first World Cup, and the organisation didn’t launch its first women’s global strategy until October 2018.
However, said slow pace of change has perhaps made this World Cup special for that same reason. The eloquence with which these footballing stars advocate for change brings a refreshing tone and content to press conferences, social media platforms, and post-match interviews, with the match itself has rarely being the talking point. Players from all countries have used these platforms to build, create, critique and inspire. USA co-captain, Megan Rapinoe, may have led the charge, benefiting from the well-established media throng covering the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT), and the team's success, to call for a more equitable system from the governing body down. However, those from less developed nations in female footballing terms, have also done the same. Chile’s captain and goalkeeper, Christiane Endler, noted that “unfortunately, women’s football has never had much support in Chile, and we’re trying to change that” as she called for women’s football “to be taken more seriously” in her country. The conditions were deemed so poor in Chile that players were forced to strike for 981 days prior to the 2018 Copa America campaign (see @matias_grez). Marta’s intensely emotional rallying cry for the next generations of Brazilians to follow in her footsteps was seen by many as the six-time FIFA World Player of the year’s farewell to the competition. She did not use this precious space to discuss the intricacies of Brazil’s football, but presented a call to action. The message wasn’t just directed to the next generation of Brazilian footballers, but was a subliminal aside to the national federation.
Predominantly marginalised by their own federations, and neglected by regional and international bodies, female footballers are multi-talented, as their survival depends upon it. They are students, graduates, mothers, workers, and many are still only part-time footballers. Such eloquence and knowledge, therefore, comes from the multitude of life and footballing experiences that constitute an average female footballer’s existence, and which diverge so starkly from their male counterparts. As Professor Jean Williams has pointed out perhaps also with this comes a great burden and additional emotional labour. The frequent use of terms such as ‘role models’ place high expectations upon already heavily burdened multi-tasking women (in the most part). Their leadership has become the default position of merely taking part in this historic sporting event. However, this newfound exposure of high profile female players to growing global audiences also contrasts quite significantly from the continued silence surrounding those working behind the scenes to magnify these messages. Those working in independent media, frequently through social media streams, are often self-funded. Photographers from Australia, social media magazines from Argentina, and reporters from Ghana, are all working for ‘the greater good’ and are often doing so from their own pocket.
The transformation of the ‘beautiful game’ at this World Cup into a united endeavour where solidarity and a collective spirit have combined with on-field skill, pace and determination, give new meaning to what football means socially, politically and globally. Advocating women’s advance has been reflected with all those taking part in this event. Players have sought to inspire and encourage the next generation and each other. The USA players comforted the Thai players after suffering the heavy 13-0 defeat, the Chilean and Argentine players supported each other on social media in the lead up to their games, which contrasts greatly to the deep-rooted rivalry in the men’s game (eg Messi and Medel red cards in the 2019 Copa America match). Fans have stood in solidarity with their players. Scottish fans remained in their hundreds to both comfort and honour their players following their exit from the competition after Argentina’s dramatic comeback in Paris on 19 June. Independent media outlets have also brought the many life stories to the fore. Whilst not all involved in evoking this change might self-profess as feminist, their action is precisely that, from the supporting fan base, to the unearthing of these diverse and multifaceted stories of overcoming that are aplenty in the women’s game, to the players and coaches themselves pushing boundaries domestically and internationally both on and off the field. This model of football that links society, football and politics in new ways, was certainly a beautiful game for precisely this reason.
NOTE: The photo is of 3 fans now able to have the names of the Chilean team on their shirts, taken in Rennes before Chile vs Thailand, 20 June 2019.
About the author - Penny Miles is Teaching Fellow in Latin American Politics and Society at the University of Bath.