What does FIFA 16 adding female players mean for women in the football industry? Sam Hassan investigates for E&M.

When I think of stereotypical male culture, my two initial ports of call are football and video games. I was not surprised to find that that FIFA, the most popular football video game in the world, finds its core audience in 16 – 32-year-old men. Since launching in 1993, it has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide, with sales of FIFA 16 expected to reach 12.1 million. This latest release is a juncture in the franchise’s history: for the first time the game will feature women’s national teams. After the 2015 Women’s World Cup, which was watched by 400 million people around the world and saw the emergence of several global superstars like the USA’s Alex Morgan, this move made commercial sense. Nevertheless, it is an important step regarding female representation in video games, all too often reduced to blatantly sexualised characters like Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, or prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto.

Social media uproar

Social media erupted in response to the announcement, offering an unfiltered insight into how FIFA fans viewed the change. Some were welcoming, regarding it as “great news”, yet there were a host of comments from young men who perceived something negative:

These comments represent current trends of the negative social media reaction. Namely, focusing on gender stereotypes rather than achievements in determining football skills, objectification of female involvement in football, and likening this involvement to “interference” in an apparently male-only sphere. The old cliché of defining such commentary as “banter” implies it to be innocent and good-humoured, thus trivialising any objections. Is this really just “banter”? And, more to the point does the attitude behind such comments bear relation to actual circumstances in European football?

Women in football: Sexism beyond the virtual experience

In the public arena of football matches, this attitude does certainly blur into something quite sinister. Sexist chants are common across European football terraces, often directed at women working in the industry, such as medics and lineswomen. One incident uploaded to YouTube at a match between Manchester United and Chelsea this year showed a sexually obscene resuests towards a female doctor. Let’s consider this objectively: near on thousands of people chanting provocatively towards an individual, a very real, primal situation, incredibly intense and intimidating for the target. Whilst those chanting were evidently enjoying themselves, it was at the expense of a person’s right to feel secure whilst doing their job. In another incident uploaded to YouTube, Real Betis fans in Seville appeared to actively encourage domestic violence.

The chant was directed at the player Ruben Castro, allegedly involved in a domestic incident, proclaiming “It wasn’t your fault! She is a bitch, you did well.” Such language is a logical extension of attitudes behind banter, actually reserving praise for misogynistic and violent behaviour. As Cecilia Castaño, professor of gender equality at Complutense University of Madrid has asserted, football is seen as a “stronghold of masculinity, where many men feel free to express their worst side.” Evidently, the European football culture in some circles is one that revels in its hostility to women, proudly displaying it as a defining characteristic. Such a culture permeates to the highest level of organised football. FIFA, the world’s leading footballing body, is incredibly unequal in its organisational structure; only one woman, Lydia Nsekera of Burundi, has ever been elected onto the executive committee. Sepp Blatter, FIFA president from 1998 – 2015, has made no effort to hide his archaic views, once quoted as saying “football is too macho. It’s difficult to accept women in governance.” In 2004, he said that women should wear tighter shorts so as to promote a “more female aesthetic”, and thus commodify female players for a male audience. The man embodies all the views usually put forward under the guise of “banter”, yet saps them of any innocence considering he once held the highest position in world football.

Sexism in football: A European problem

Naturally, the culture trickles down to footballing associations across Europe. For example, Richard Scudamore, chief executive of the English Premier League, was exposed in May 2014 for sending numerous emails featuring sexual innuendo and derogatory terms directed towards women. Not only did the English FA not take action against him, they audaciously claimed that “there is no evidence of wider discriminatory attitudes or inappropriate language, or a general attitude of disrespect towards women.” A complete denial in the face of actual evidence suggests that a closed culture of sexism remains.  Indeed, the equal opportunities organisation Women in Football stated that the “Premier League missed a significant opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to equality in the workplace.”

In Italy, a scandal occurred in May 2015 when Felie Belloli, president of Italy’s amateur football leagues, told the Italian Football Federation not to increase funding to a “bunch of lesbians”, referring to the women’s game. It subsequently led to the women’s Coppa Italia final between Brescia and Tavagnacco being called off. That this was deemed appropriate language for an official conversation implies a serious prevalence of sexist attitudes in the Italian FF. When Italian Prime Minister Matteo Ranzi’s declared that “there has got to be an end to all these embarrassments”, I wonder if his objection is to underlying sexist attitudes or simply to their publicity.

A culture hostile to women is maintained through perverted rationalisations, like conflating hostility with “banter” or simply declaring that football is rightly the property of men.

The Spanish women’s national team has also been subject to sexist controversy, that which came to light after the team’s failure at the 2015 World Cup. It centred on Ignacio Quereda, the team’s manager for 27 years, who got his job thanks to a friendship with Ángel María Villar, president of the Spanish Football Association (RFEF). Players made consistent complaints about their manager, describing him as capricious – dropping players simply due to his mood – and extremely controlling during their time with the national team. Midfielder Vicky Losada told journalists how he addressed and treated them as chavalitas: little girls who did not deserve freedom. Since 1999, many of Spain’s best women footballers mutinied from the team, yet the team’s qualms were completely dismissed by Vicente Temprado, head of the Women’s Sector in the RFEF, who branded their actions as “inappropriate and unnecessary”. In Spanish newspaper Marca, Marti Perarnau described how Ángel María Villar viewed women’s football as a nuisance, treating it with “condescension, disinterest and paternalism”.  The RFEF’s shocking disregard for women’s football is epitomised by their dismissal of an offer from CGP Sport to televise / stream every game, find field and kit sponsors and create social media platforms for top Spanish women’s leagues.

Evidently, the FIFA 16 reaction does speak to problems regarding women’s place in European football. For one, a culture hostile to women is maintained through perverted rationalisations, like conflating hostility with “banter” or simply declaring that football is rightly the property of men. The assertion that women’s football is inherently subordinate to the men’s game justifies reducing the formers professional opportunities and actively inhibiting its growth.

Photo: Brent Flanders (Flickr) Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Nevertheless, events such as FIFA 16’s introduction of women and the Women’s World Cup are huge steps towards reducing barriers to female involvement. They allow the conversation to progress to its current level, as lights are shone on issues such as the crisis in the Spanish women’s football team, which the media had previously been silent on. I see scandals, of which the negative FIFA 16 reaction is a mini-version, as indicative of an increasingly unviable sexist attitude. The reactionary voices allude to overwhelming trends that are hard to accept for some. Indeed, European football has never been a more welcoming environment for women; in my country, England, numbers of women attending matches are rapidly increasing year on year; 33% of first time fans in 2010 were female compared to 17% in 2002.

Moreover, the number of women playing in affiliated league and cup competitions has risen from 10,400 to 147,000 over the last 20 years, and considering the lack of professional opportunities for women, we can assume that many more thousands are playing. One could say that football is finally living up to its clichéd characterisation as a game of two halves.

Featured photo:Jeremy Wilburn (Flickr) Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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    Sam Hassan is English and spent the past year living in Jinan teaching English at a Foreign Language School. He graduated from University College London in September 2015 studying history. He is now back in London and spends his time travelling, writing and making music (https://soundcloud.com/sininigenie). He is a participant in the Battersea Arts Centre Young Producers of the Year programme.

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