No, Brazil is not cheering
While the Matildas are still honeymooning their victory streak, Brazil is not tuning-in to women’s football21 September 2017 | Luciane Lauffer
“No one saw, no one knew” once wrote Brazilian anthropologist Carmem Rial about the media coverage of the Brazilian women’s football team in their home country.
It was Sunday morning in Australia (Saturday night on the other side of the globe), and one could find very few online headlines about the match between Brazil and Australia, barely any in the four of the main newspapers in the futebol nation.
While their match against the Matildas attracted a crowd of over 15,000 people (myself included) in Sydney, in Brazil few people even knew about the match.
One would imagine similar, or even greater, interest for the Seleção Brasileira (Brazil’s national team) would have been happening in futebol nation that is Brazil. Truth is the women’s team didn’t even make it to the headlines, except for smaller publications, blogs and some social media feeds. It’s women’s football, a sport category that has been struggling to gain the headlines or even a paragraph in traditional, mainstream journalism in Brazil’s macho culture.
It has been a long time since women’s football has been marginalised in favour of men’s. It is not a unique position in the world of football, but when it happens in a country where football reigns absolute as the number one sport, one could wonder why.
The history is long.
Despite the early beginnings of the sport back to the 1880s, the first records of women playing the game of the round ball date to the 1920s, some of them involved circus exhibitions and matches on the beach.
However, their attempts to enter the pitch started raising eyebrows, with the moralists of the time having women’s football, alongside all other contact sports, banned in 1941. A federal decree determined that women should save themselves for more ‘noble’ purposes, such as looking feminine and preserving their bodies for maternity. The ban was in place for 38 years, until 1979.
Since then, women’s football has been going through a troubled path. Despite the large numbers of players who started taking the fields in the 1980s, many of the teams soon after faded away due to the lack of support and resources.
If one thinks Marta had a steady path, think again. She started practicing with other boys on the street at the age of 7, but was constantly discouraged by her family. She was only taken seriously when spotted by a scout at the age of 14, when she went to play in São Paulo. From there, Marta was lucky to further develop her skills and not long after secured a contract overseas, when she became the star as we know today.
But even Marta, who won five times in a row FIFA’s Ballon D’Or as female footballer of the year, doesn’t get paid anywhere near male Brazilian stars. Just for comparison, at the top of her game playing in Sweden in 2015 she made U$400,000 a year, while male player Kaká, moving towards retirement, was getting U$7 million playing in the US.
Until today, Marta’s quest in professional football remains as playing abroad, a path that is common for Brazilian players. However, while for men, getting a transfer to European clubs translates into career success, for women, playing overseas may be the only answer to become a full-time professional footballer.
Change occurs at a slow pace in South America. In the past two years, the Brazilian government as well as the South American Confederation (Conmebol) have been pushing professional clubs to establish women’s divisions, but that does not mean equal conditions nor investment in much needed grassroots development. Despite the access to coaching and facilities, men’s teams will have priority in using the training fields, resources and marketing.
Today, it is estimated that less than one million women play football in Brazil - a country of over 200 million people. Despite the slow advances, discrimination and prejudice against female players has not ceased. At the women’s football matches during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, there were reports of verbal abuse from the crowd, who yelled ‘lesbians’ and the like towards the players, including the Aussies.
That is the contemporary reflection of how football remains pretty much a male dominated game.
In a country where patriarchy reigns supreme, taking the centre of the pitch and being acclaimed by the crowds is mostly a men’s privilege. And the majority seems happy to keep it that way.
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