Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Selling Women's Soccer

This isn't a blog really. And really not in keeping with the whole intention behind hitting the blog-world. It's an article I wrote, a review, for Biblio - A Review of Books. Rather liked what I wrote; always such a pleasure when you are given such a lot of space to fill. If you don't know the feeling, check with a newspaper friend you might have. The book was one of the more interesting to have come my way and was right up my alley in the sense that the subject was one very close to my heart. So I let fly...and here's what I came up with.


It was Sepp Blatter’s statement a few months back that gave you time to stop and think a bit about women’s football all over again.
No one thought women’s football was going great guns or moving up the acceptability ladder. Truth be told, not much has happened on or off the field since Brandi Chastain’s bra-flip (after scoring US’ World Cup winning goal against China in 1999), and so much else happening in women’s sports in general across the world. Women’s football tended to slip out of public consciousness.
Blatter, the FIFA chief, said one fine afternoon — not drunk or looking any funnier than usual — that the only chance women’s football has of making it big in TV or elsewhere is if the players show a bit of skin. You know…. What’s with thigh-length shorts and tees anyway? The ball and the goalposts are incidental, you have the bods, make it more beach volleyballish? Strip down. Move up.
To quote him (January 2004): “Women’s soccer needs different sponsors from the men’s game. Fashion, cosmetics — those would be the possible partners. More must be done with this. Tighter shorts, for example. Let the women play in more feminine uniforms than men. Pretty women are playing football today. Excuse me for saying that.”
Now, while a few footballers from England, Canada and the US feigned indignance at Herr Blatter’s gall, strangely enough, there wasn’t too much of an uproar from the scores of NGOs and other bodies dealing with women’s issues. No clue why. Was it because ‘Sepp Blatter’ on Google now showed a story on women footballers right on top of the list? Or was it just something everyone, collectively, chose to gloss over? A couple of editorials about ‘Sepp plays foul’ or ‘Sepp’s gone offside again’ are all we got.
Of the retorts, while some expressed outrage, uneducated responses came from players like Swiss captain Evelyn Zimmerman, who could only say “those shorts are uncomfortable” and a few others, who asked for Blatter to make similar demands of the men.
Norway international Lise Klaveness made somewhat more sense: “If the crowd only wants to come and watch models, they should go buy a copy of Playboy.”
Which brings us to Soccer, Women, Sexual Liberation – Kicking Off a New Era. In the Olympic year, the contemporaneity of the collection hits home. The Games, down the years, has been a veritable ‘Sports, Women, Sexual Liberation’ saga and with the world as it is at the moment, 2004 had more than its share of stories of women’s liberation, especially from countries across the Islamic spread.
While the book itself concentrates on football; tracing the evolution of women’s football from around the world, discussing the myths associated, raising troubling questions and providing enough answers, the thread that goes through the book isn’t only about football. It’s to do with women in general, sports in general, and women in sports per se.
The back flap reads — just to explain the editors’ considerations — “Women’s soccer…has been subject to scant scrutiny. Little has been written about its history or about how its growth reflects important trends in world, such as feminism, commercialism and globalism.” It goes on to say: “This collection…examines its progress, and the challenges and problems it has faced. It shows how women’s football has made a significant contribution to female emancipation in many countries. It traces the sport’s evolution in the face of resistance, rejection and prejudice, and describes women’s struggle for equal rights in a male-dominated world.”
The Olympic equivalent that comes to mind straightaway is that of Nawal El Moutawakel. The name is incidental, the story universal. Of how it takes a superhuman effort for a woman in male-dominated societies to cross hurdles and shatter glass ceilings. At Los Angeles in 1984, Nawal became the first African, the first Moroccan, and the first Muslim woman Olympic gold medallist.
She wasn’t the first Moroccan woman to run in shorts. In fact, she was at an advantage because she studied at the Iowa State University in the US. But she caught the cusp of a movement and rode the wave.
Nawal is today the sports minister of her fast-progressing country and as part of her job, she is trying her darnedest to bring more women into sports, and more importantly, work on the mindset of the society as a collective. Speaking to me last year, Nawal had said, “Nowadays, women take part in every other sports in most parts of the world. But the veils remain. In Morocco, as in the rest of the Arab world, we have very strong taboos. My real aim is to achieve success in this area, using sports as a tool. I know I can’t move mountains, but barriers can be broken.”
Cut to Athens 2004 and a series of Nawal-like stories have made it to the dailies across the world. Well, not Nawal-like really, in the sense the people we are talking about haven’t struck gold. But when an Iranian woman – in her burqa – makes it to the shooting range, or when a Pakistani 16-year-old plunges into the swimming pool, or a Bahraini, an Iraqi and an Afghan woman wear body-suits and dash a 100 metres, you realise that a few hundred miles have been covered.
Coming to Soccer, Women… the common thread running through the book is of hope. Of optimism. Yes, the studies tell a grim tale. History hasn’t been positive. As co-editor J A Mangan writes in the prologue: “Women’s advance in modern sport has been too frequently characterised by condescension and confrontation, denial and defiance, proscription and persistence, and too often, by necessary forced entry and grudging accommodation.”
But while the collection we have at hand is one of a series, the basic problem is that it treats itself far too much like a series. If we are talking of women’s football and all the problems it has had these years in carving an identity for itself, we will have to move out of the First World. Of the 14 pieces, not one discusses the Muslim world. Where, believe it or not, things are improving.
It’s all about the developed world, so why won’t it be positive? Why won’t there be hope? Or optimism? Admittedly, the success stories give us a model to work with. Gives us a picture of one side of the story. But is it enough?
Optimism is good. If anything, the Olympic Games is in-your-face evidence of how women’s sport has developed down the years. But if we are going to be discussing sexual liberation of women in the context of football, a collection sequenced USA, Canada, China, Korea, India, Denmark, England, Germany, Norway, Ireland, Sweden, New Zealand, Africa: Senegal-Nigeria-South Africa and Brazil is far from complete. It deals with countries where the women’s game was never encouraged but where, eventually, things turned around. Or, as the case might be, things are in the process of turning around.
Yes, there is the token Asian-African presence. But it appears too obligatory. If we are going to discuss the developed world, let’s keep it to that. If we are going to bring in India and Nigeria, let’s go the whole hog.
Without going into the merits and demerits of each study — while clarifying that all of them do a fair job of going deep into the heart of the matter in their respective countries and present a fair picture of the development (or lack of it, more often) of the game therein — it’s best to look at the overall picture. The problem a lot of writers here face is the lack of published material or empirical studies of women’s football in their countries of choice. But despite that, the snapshots are detailed.
What we are looking at really, as Mangan mentions in his chapter Managing Monsters, is “the crucial issue to be confronted in the future, to a greater extent beyond Europe and North America than within them, is the role government — national and local — will need to play in the 21st century. Both state and public sector organisations have an obligation to ensure essential social services including educational and leisure opportunities for involvement in sport.” He carries on, correctly, “Soccer, Women…reveals disquieting tendencies in both northern and southern hemispheres to abrogate these responsibilities — in total and in part. It is equally clear that action to halt this tendency will only be made when women have a voice — individually and collectively — on state and public sector decision, and have a presence at local and national levels. This must be a priority for the future.”
Success — relative, because outside of North America, women’s football hasn’t been able to match the popularity of men’s football yet — in the Scandinavian countries is encouraging. The studies were instructive because it is easy to imagine that Sweden, Denmark and Norway are fairytale countries, where problems are duly dealt with and everyone can fight for and get their dues. One assumes that women wouldn’t have had a problem finding acceptance on the football fields there. But as Kari Fasting’s essay on Norway and Jonny Hjelm-Eva Olofsson’s piece on Sweden clarify, it wasn’t so easy. And then again, Anne Brus-Else Trangbaek’s tale of the ‘ten-year struggle’ of women’s football in Denmark makes you wonder at the disparity in issues between these countries and a place like India. And we are not even attempting to consider the Muslim world.
India, though technically non-Muslim and unorthodox, is a deeply conservative system. Orthodoxy and conservatism seep out of every pore of this ancient nation. The movie Bend It Like Beckham — used in the study as an entry point — is a good indicator of exactly how things are in a traditional Indian home. However, BILB being based in modern-day England, the feel-good ending shouldn’t be construed as a generalisation.
In Indian sport, success (just taking part most often) for women comes at a high price. Social acceptance, not finding an appropriate ‘match’ and general apathy being only one part of it.
Women’s football never really took off in India. Boria Majumdar conclusion — that “the popularity of a film (BILB) which shows an Indian woman excel in football, is a telling comment on the changing mentality towards women’s football in the country. BILB is proof that all is not lost for women and the years to come may present a different scenario” — might not be optimism correctly placed. Simply because zilch is about how much women’s football finds space on the agenda of the All India Football Federation or the Indian Football Association.
Movies like Mother India, Insaaf Ka Taraazu, Mirch Masala and Mrityudand have also been successful, but the position of women in Indian society hasn’t changed much unless we base our theories on the faux metro atmosphere.
As for Latin America, we might have gained from a study that went beyond Brazil. While Sebastiao Votre and Ludmila Mourao surprise us by confirming that it was only around the late 1970s that women footballers found acceptance in Brazil (thank heavens for the beaches in Rio de Janeiro), a bit on Columbia, Uruguay, Argentina, etc could have been equally interesting. The three nations just mentioned, and also Peru, Paraguay, Venezuela, etc are completely football-crazy nations. As is Brazil. If it was difficult in Brazil, comparatively less hypocritical than the other nations, the stories from the rest of the block were bound to be equally poignant.
The saddest part of the story, though, is that the future just may prove Blatter right. If television is the yardstick for acceptability — and audience-appeal the means to that — women’s football may have to pay a high price. In terms of the commodification of women’s bodies and the trivialisation of the spirit of football. Negotiations between sports administrators and television networks usually end with major compromises. And it’s sport that is usually compromised.
In the context of Blatter’s January Slur, it was Canadian women’s team coach Even Pellerud who made the most sense: “If FIFA or soccer nations are not able to sell the product (women’s football), maybe there’s another problem than how the players look. Maybe there should be better marketing people.”
Which is basically the crux of the matter. Television needs to see the money. If it does, then the chain reaction will ensure the advancement and development of women’s football across the continents. The question is: How far are we willing to go?