Women can’t play football – at least, not as well as men. It is a label that has haunted the game for decades.

While the women’s game only started to formally gain space during the 1970’s, after bans and prohibition were lifted in places like England, Brazil and even Australia, women’s participation has been a bumpy road in many countries. Although not clearly visible, challenges for securing sponsorship, promotion and development (not to mention the pay gap) persist outside the 90 minutes of play.

Our W-League season is well underway and the Matildas take on China in two friendly matches this week, with the first match on Wednesday night resulting in a 3-0 win to Australia.

Despite the hype – and the advantage of promotion strategies surrounding the national team, the national league still suffers from the almost empty stadium syndrome. Every week, unless one is actively involved with women’s football, it is difficult to find out when and where the matches are being played, and if they are being shown anywhere, on television or internet. Sparse questions appear on online media appear when fans ask “Can we watch the game somewhere?” 

Last February, fellow journalist Michael Lynch wrote about the W-League grand final, claiming that more promotion and marketing are vital if the women’s game is to capitalise on advantages. More than six months later and not much, if anything at all, has happened. The games are being played, but still only the sporadic number of supporters take the stands.

Is there a natural order of things?

In Australia, the existence and development of the women’s game have been barely documented, and even though football has reached new heights, the old, unspoken problems remain.

Shift the focus to the physical aspect of the game: for over 90 minutes, players are chasing and controlling a ball (no hands!), while exerting a physical effort that deserves the praise of many passive onlookers. Still that does not make the game entertaining enough for some.

Many say that women’s football sucks – it is slow and lack in skill, with a few exceptions. The ‘inability’ to play the game at a reasonable level is evident when they seem unable to fully control the ball, pass, kick  and run as fast as men have been doing for over a century. However, the main issue here is exactly the comparison of two different landscapes (where stamina and technique seem less important than strength).

So where is the problem?

First, women don’t need to be patronised and ‘accepted’ as less capable. Don’t give them sympathy for a slower game, and don’t suggest that the game should be modified as it is for children. Some critics and expert commentators have suggested smaller goals, others smaller shorts. In Denmark, there was even an experiment with a lighter, smaller ball as an attempt to rebrand the sport’s image and attractiveness by making it ‘easier’ for women to play.

What girls and women need is true equality whereby there is identical access, training and opportunities available to boys and men. Physical ability, particularly for a sport where the main skills rely on using the feet, demands long training and early access to development. Kicking a ball is not a natural movement – especially for women.

Football demands coordination, forceful movements, stability and good technique. If these particular attributes are not developed and promoted from childhood, it will be much more difficult to master the movements later in life, just as learning a new language. However, this development is weakened while girls are mainly taught to grow up to be gentle, sweet and lady-like, defining what is meant to be feminine.

Girls have been deprived from fully developing their physical skills or in what researchers have called “movement disability”. While boys receive their football equipment and education from an early age, the girls are encouraged to take part in activities deemed less physical, in non-contact sports, where they can display the use of their bodies in a more gracious way. It’s the typical gender dichotomy of a ball for boys, ballet shoes for girls.

From an early age, this social divide can endure throughout life. Not only are girls less involved in physical activities, but they drop out at a larger rate and generally do not go back to sports as adults.

In this regard, parents play a bigger role in this picture. A recent report has shown how active parents in sport have positively influenced their children, with 90% of kids with active parents taking part in sport in Australia. For the benefit of the girls, mothers and other women have an even more important responsibility in this development, acting as role models.

Not long ago, upon the return of the women to football, women’s participation was marginalised in Australia. It seems that the previous misconceptions about the fragility of the female body persisted. In the mid 1970’s, women who wanted to play had to organise themselves and create their own clubs and association to play and compete nationally and overseas.

Without the support that men’s teams have enjoyed for many decades, women’s football has had to develop its own game, including their own abilities as players. Many had to fund themselves to travel and train, a reality that only started to change in the lead up to the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

A lot has changed since then, but although it may not appear the case, there is plenty more than can be to be done about the women’s game, with one of the key changes simple to achieve. Let girls run, jump, throw, chase footballs and kick goals. Not all will turn into players, but at least they had the chance to try.

Fortunately, in this lucky country football clubs, federations and academies are offering skills development programs to both boys and girls, allowing the physical part of the game to improve significantly. It is a process that requires time and dedication, and a shifting of the goalposts without introducing smaller footballs. Like sowing seeds, we will see, in ten years or less, today’s young aspiring Matildas hitting hard the football nets around the world.

Special thanks to Dr Heather Reid for her input.

Categories: Analysis | Women

matildas, w-league, gender equity, women's football

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