Opinion: Russia 2018, the rise of women

Oh, buzz off with your archaic views

From Moscow to Tehran and back again, Russia 2018 has been breaking new ground for women across the world, much to the upset of many.

New faces for the Beeb and ITV

Under the long shadow of Putin and Blatter, the World Cup kicked off for the 21st time nine days ago, the tournament bringing together fans from all corners of the globe. Despite talk of boycotts for all the shady dealings behind the scenes that saw Russia awarded the tournament with Qatar the host in 2022, the focus fast switched to the football – as well as the VAR.

From Robbie Williams’ extended middle finger to so many retrospective penalties, it’s been a World Cup like no other but it’s also been a tournament of change, the rise of equality changing the landscape. With Alex Scott in the studio for the BBC and Eni Aluko likewise for ITV, the English public have been treated to a female opinion on a historically male panel, Jacqui Oatley and Gabby Logan no longer the only women around in front of the camera.

Despite Scott having just shy of 150 caps for England, six league titles, seven FA Cups and a Champions League winners medal to her name, as well as seven other titles the defender has drawn criticism. So too fellow England centurion Aluko, who is as well decorated with four league titles, four FA Cups and various runners up medals from various cups, both women having been in the England squad that famously came third at the World Cup in 2015.

The two pundits having shown not just their prowess and depth of experience on the pitch but their willingness to bring their best to the chair in the studio too, the two well researched and offering a different opinion. The sight of them in front of the camera evidentially too much for some men to stomach, the torrent of complaints from irate fans all blending into one sexist rant that’s come with a healthy side of racism.

Aluko and Scott not just women but women of colour, a double win for the PC brigade!” Dave from Dorset hammers into his keyboard before pressing reply. “What do these birds know about football and who cares, MORE LAWRENSON!” Kevin from Bristol adds to a slew of abuse on a BBC Sport post. “Aluko is SO annoying… and a LIAR too!” Stu from Chester says throwing in his two cents, still carrying a chip on his shoulder for the previous England women manager.

They’re relentless, the responses, the vitriol, the mentality a throwback from decades long past, the constant whine enough to make you want to visit your GP, fearing tinnitus.

Football is for men. It’s played by men to be consumed by men and women have no place talking about it and come to think about it… what are they even doing out of the kitchen?

I’m no sexist!” says Terry from Hounslow, “I just don’t want women talking about football,” he adds, missing the glaringly obvious.

The good, the bad and Evra's applause

Like 90% of the rest of the world, I’ve sat and watched some of the matches, I’ve sat through Aluko and Scott at half time, I’ve agreed and disagreed with what they’ve said, they’ve not been perfect, but no one has. I’ve also sat through Mark Lawrenson moaning and Phil Neville whispering into the microphone, I’ve watched Roy Keane spend an entire segment looking like he was about to punch the man next to him. I’ve reminisced about Des Lynam and been impressed with Frank Lampard, I’ve longed for more Martin O'Neill and have despaired when players names are butchered. There’s great commentary out there and there’s abysmal commentary out there and given the small percentage that women have featured, the men are winning on both sides.

The BBC have also made history this week after Vicki Sparks became the first woman to commentate live on a World Cup match televised in the UK, something that has predictably drawn criticism again. The match the one that John Terry came home to, posting a photo of the game, with the caption that he was watching without sound.

Though Terry took the time to clarify that the sound in his house was broken, only he knows what the truth is, the reaction online was instant. But whilst Terry’s audio system may very well have been broken, there would have been men across the UK opting for mute as soon as they heard a woman.

Some men have been so shocked to hear not just women talking about football but expressing thoughtful insights that they’ve found themselves pausing to clap. Or maybe just one man. Yes, Patrice “I don’t know much about this French team” Evra and his moment of cringeworthy patronisation (the one where he applauded Aluko, not when he admitted he wasn’t familiar with the French side). The Frenchman’s genuine shock spoke volumes, not just because he’d rocked up to the studio not having done his homework – something that would see a woman reprimanded for – but because he wasn’t expecting insight from a woman. Evra, a mirror of society at large, albeit a happier one.

The same elsewhere

It’s not just the UK, this epidemic is spreading. In Norway, Lise Klaveness has parallelled Sparks, having made the jump from in-studio punditry to live commentary, the likes of Guro Reiten and Ada Hegerberg filling the void. In Denmark, Nadia Nadim has been in the studio whilst Pernille Harder has penned her thoughts for Jyllands Posten and in Sweden Hanna Marklund’s presence in the studio has been enough to rankle some fans. Just as Claudia Neumann has received backlash in Germany for daring to commentate on football whilst being in possession of a uterus.

Whilst some of these women are breaking new ground, Australian Lucy Zelic is proudly in the studio for SBS for her second World Cup, the journalism graduate well used to dealing with a torrent of online abuse. Whilst football remains a game for men, harassing women online for daring to step into the sphere is exclusively for children. Close to quitting her job with SBS four years ago, Zelic let her love for the beautiful game carry her through, the 31-year-old unphased by the online rhetoric today.

Though it’s not just in the studio that women find problems with reporting as Julieth González Therán can attest, the Colombian groped and kissed (or put another way, sexually assaulted) live on air last week. Something Sportbladet correspondent Malin Wahlberg can relate to, the Swede kissed and manhandled live on air whilst in Nizhny Novgorod this week.

Trying to dismiss the incidents as just a bit of fun harks back to the recent past, “oh they were just saying hello,” Nigel from Salford says, “What, can’t you be friendly anymore?!” Don’t know about you Nige’ but I’m not such a fan of being fondled by strangers. If you think it’s okay to go up to someone and give them a squeeze maybe you should consider how you’d feel if it were an overbearing stranger coming up and sticking his hand down your boxers, suddenly less appealing, no?  

Women in Volgograd and Tehran unite

Russian football matches can be notoriously unpleasant places for many, the Российская футбольная премьер-лига (Russian Premier League) not without its incidents. However, as the Guardian recently reported, the World Cup has seen a rise in the number of women attending matches, more than happy to get caught up in the glorious hysteria of a home tournament. In a male-dominated environment, FIFA’s tournament brings a more welcoming feel, the displays put on by the Russian national team something the home fans can get behind.

On Wednesday, 1,400 miles south of the Kazan Stadium, just off of the banks off the Caspian Sea, women were permitted in the Azadi Stadium in Tehran for the first time in almost 40 years. Though a handful of women had previously snuck into the stadium, dressed as men wearing fake beards and such, this week has seen women freely allowed inside albeit after a mini-protest. An unwritten law in Iran banning women from sports venues, the ban relaxed this week for women to come in and watch a broadcast of Iran vs Spain. Initially not allowed in, fans began to chant, some fast organising a sit-in until they were granted entry following a special order from Interior Minister, Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli.

Although the situation in Iran remains a complex one, the feeling being that women will only be allowed to attend for World Cup screenings before things revert for the Persian Gulf Pro League season. It is equally as unlikely that women will flock to league matches in Russia after the tournament, the atmosphere at domestic matches not likely to change.

Uruguay look to better themselves… sort of

Part-way through enduring Phil Neville’s commentary on Uruguay's win over Saudi Arabia, the former Manchester United man stated that the Uruguay fans are solely focused on their team winning so the nation can progress further than they ever have before. Apparently unbeknownst to Neville, La Celeste have won the World Cup. Twice.

Uruguay the not just the first ever team to host the World Cup but the first to win, sitting out the second and third editions they extended their 100% record when they scooped their second title in 1950. 12 years after 68,000 fans watched them best Argentina in Montevideo, La Celeste historically upset the odds to defeat Brazil in front of nearly 200,000 fans in the Maracanã. Although the team have been beyond the last four since (finishing fourth three times since 1950), it is hard to see how they improve and progress further than winning the tournament.

It was a galling moment of commentary that fast provoked a reaction online but just like the other gaffs it didn’t generate a breath-taking backlash calling for all men to be banned from the commentary box. The sad fact about Aluko and Scott’s commentary, their preparation is that as women they know they’ll be under the microscope and no matter what, they’ll receive reprisal. Too well researched or under-informed, showing too much skin and not showing enough skin, too feminine whilst being too masculine, Aluko and Scott and guilty of every possible contradiction.

They represent not just female footballers but women everywhere, just like Oatley and Logan, they receive acerbic abuse for daring to exist in a male dominated sport but their voices (too loud yet too quiet) are being heard by all. For young girls looking for role models, they exist, for young boys they’re the norm’, a woman’s opinion equal to that of a man.

They think it’s all over, it is… damn, broke a nail

If you deny that sexism is at the root of the fury maybe ask yourself some questions, what is it these football fans are objecting to? The broken record has several tracks, one that women don’t understand football, that women’s football isn’t the same as men’s – whereas men kick a ball around a pitch for 90 minutes trying to score, women…. er, never mind. Maybe it’s about experience, Ian Wright’s 33 England caps certainly count for something, so too Danny Murphy’s nine, oh yeah, Aluko and Scott both have over a hundred to their names. Well, international silverware then… oh yeah, Aluko and Scott both have bronze medals from the last World Cup, the men… let’s move on. They’re  too opinionated! Heaven forbid a pundit have an opinion. They’re too loud… have you double-checked the volume on your remote?

They’re women, they’re not distracted by all the dishy men running around in shorts nor are they constantly worrying about missing a sale at Prada. The job done on them by the make-up artists is probably nothing more taxing than powdering Alan Shearer’s head in an effort to keep the glare down.

As UEFA are so fond of saying, Football is for all, the World Cup is one of the greatest spectacles in sport, it unites young and old, men and women, it brings countries together and delights audiences the world over. From the joy to the heartache, the goals and the misses, the World Cup is for all to gawp at and enjoy, if hearing a female voice in the background is enough to disrupt your enjoyment then I sincerely feel for the women in your life. A woman’s place is in the kitchen as much as the man’s is, the football pitch a home to men and women alike. Football communicates in its own language, images of forlorn goalkeepers with strikers peeling away in joy are universally understood, the players could be male or female, the photographer male or female, the agony and ecstasy knows no gender.