Global women’s football has a crisis but not one that is impossible to resolve. The rising number of leading international women’s footballers who are in dispute with their Federations is a major concern for the sport but at the heart of the widespread, off-field drama is one key theme: players do not feel their governing bodies are listening to their concerns.
It means that, with under five months until the World Cup begins, instead of the women’s game building up a sense of momentum ahead of the tournament, the sport now faces the serious prospect of the World Cup taking place without many of the biggest stars in the world.
The latest high-profile case saw arguably France’s three best players – their captain Wendie Renard, plus PSG forwards Kadidiatou Diani and Marie-Antoinette Katoto – step back from their national team on Friday. Renard, who lifted the Women’s Champions League trophy aloft as Lyon skipper last May, announced she will not play at the World Cup because she cannot support the current “system”. Diani and Katoto soon followed that with statements saying they could not support the current “management”.
That was just one factor in Tuesday’s news that the president of the French Football Federation (FFF), 81-year-old Noël Le Graët, had resigned from his role, after a report commissioned by the French government’s sports ministry concluded that he no longer had “the necessary legitimacy” to stay in office.
Le Graët has faced allegations of sexual and moral harassment, but has denied any wrongdoing. He was known to be a staunch supporter of the French women’s team’s head coach Corinne Diacre, whose future in her role is now reportedly uncertain.
At the same time, Spain have just completed a third consecutive international camp without 15 of their leading senior players, all of whom resigned in September because of the impact head coach Jorge Vilda’s regime is allegedly having on their mental wellbeing. Vilda has refused to resign and the Royal Spanish Football Federation has criticised the players for not making themselves available for selection.
On top of that, Canada’s players are warning that they will boycott April’s international fixtures if their dispute over pay inequality and funding cuts is not adequately addressed. The Canadian squad, who won the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics 18 months ago, had planned to strike during February’s SheBelieves Cup tournament in the United States but eventually took part in that mini-competition “under protest” after the Canada Soccer Association threatened them with legal action. Their players allege there is a “disgusting” difference between the provisions afforded to the men’s and women’s national sides.
That contributed to mounting pressure on Canada Soccer’s president Nick Bontis, who resigned on Monday Bontis said in a statement: “I acknowledge that this moment requires change.”
Nonetheless, the dispute between the players and Canada Soccer appears far from over.
Most worryingly for the sport more widely, these are merely the cases that are making the news globally, but will be far from isolated. As one Women’s Super League player put it, when discussing the matter privately last week: “If the Olympic champions can’t get the conditions they deserve, what hope is there for some of the smaller, poorer countries?”
Chelsea manager Emma Hayes summed up the situation when she said on Sunday that these multiple cases across the globe serve as a reminder of how much further the women’s game still has to go.
Chelsea’s captain Magdalena Eriksson, asked what support she would offer her club team-mates Buchanan, Fleming and Perisset in the run-up to the League Cup final on March 5, said on Tuesday: “We’re all friends in the team and we have supported them a lot. It’s something that we know is an issue in women’s football. It’s not something that we’re not used to.
“There have been different people having different fights that can share their experiences with them and help them in that way. And then I think it’s just about being there and supporting them, and them also knowing that Chelsea is a safe space where luckily we don’t have those issues, we have a really good environment.”
Speaking after her side’s 2-0 win over Arsenal in the Women’s FA Cup, where asked for her assessment of the situation, Hayes – whose Chelsea team includes Canada duo Kadeisha Buchanan and Jessie Fleming, as well as France right-back Eve Perisset, said: “Federations have got to do better to support the women’s game, because clearly we’re not getting it right globally.
“I don’t know each and every situation in its entirety. What I know is, we’ve all got to do better. It’s sad to hear, but it’s one which just serves as a reminder of just how much work we’ve still got to do.”
Each of the above disputes involving national teams are very different, but principally, women’s international players that you speak to merely want some basic things: Respect, and a high-performance environment that enables them to play at their best, when representing their country
That can be down to so much more than just remuneration. It’s how teams travel to away fixtures overseas, what quality of hotel they stay at for tournaments, whether the pitches they train on are an injury risk, and what numbers of support staff their Federation provide with regards to physiotherapy, nutrition and sports science, compared to their male counterparts.
In Spain’s case, the Royal Spanish Football Federation’s stance, and their decision to back Vilda, is particularly baffling, for multiple reasons. Even if you staunchly believe in giving a manager more time, Vilda’s record in the three major tournaments he has led their national team hardly seems like the sort of return that would merit unconditional support from his bosses, having not yet made it past a quarter-final, despite Spain’s current “golden generation” of talent.
Yet he’s currently got the support of Spain’s governing body, with 15 of his best players no longer wanting to play for him. More strangely, unlike in club football, Spain cannot go and sign a whole new team of world-class players. In international sport, the cohort of players eligible for selection are the only cards you have in your playing deck. Yet the RSFF seem happy, at the moment, to take a largely second-string squad to a World Cup many felt they could win.
By contrast, it all makes the environment at England women’s camps look comparatively serene. It would be wrong to suggest things have been perfect for the Lionesses over the years, but now, when they train at St George’s Park, they practice on the site’s very best pitch. They are afforded the same equipment, recovery and gym facilities as Gareth Southgate’s men’s side. And they will fly in business class to this summer’s World Cup, to try and ensure the squad arrives in Australia in as good a physical condition as possible
Of course, that is an expense not every FA in the world is fortunate enough to be able to afford. But what you can provide for your men’s teams, you should be able to provide for your women’s and girls’ teams.