Behind the scenes, women in football see Spain scandal as part of systemic problems | Soccer

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The staff uniform for Uefa’s Euro 2020 championship (held in 2021 after Covid interrupted the original schedule) included beige trousers considered by many staff to be – how can we put this politely? – see through. According to Sally Freedman, a marketing and communication manager for Uefa at the time, many female staff members chose not to wear the full uniform, ditching the beige clothes for more modest blue jeans.

On her first day in jeans, Freedman remembers a male senior staff member encouraged her to wear the Uefa-issued trousers the following day. This was not an intervention by the fashion police. According to Freedman, the staff member wanted to personally “check” if the clothes were indeed see through.

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“I nervously laughed and moved the conversation on,” Freedman says. “Because I was tired. Tired of the same old nonsense. These things were happening so regularly.”

The aftermath of Spain’s victory at this year’s Women’s World Cup has highlighted the sexism and misogyny in the country’s football set-up, but those problems are global.

“Uefa was systemic and chipped away at me,” Freedman, who left the European governing body in 2022, tells the Guardian. “One reason it was so bad there was that it was so heavily dominated by men at the top. I was relatively senior within the organization and I was the only female in the room for most of my meetings. At the lower end of the organization the gender balance is about 60-40 but that’s still not even.”

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Freedman has detailed her experience working within the football industry in her recently-published book, Get Your Tits Out For The Lads. Part memoir, part manifesto, it details her time working for Uefa, the Asian Football Confederation, and for Melbourne City – the Australian A-League franchise of City Football Group.

As a protocol manager for the AFC during the 2015 Asian Cup, which was hosted by Australia, Freedman recalls being unable to do her job at times because some of the AFC’s “VVIP” guests refused to be met by a woman at match venues. Working for Melbourne City as head of fan engagement, she was escorting a first-team player to a post-match event when he whispered in her ear to ask if she wanted to see the size of his penis.

In one meeting at Uefa after Euro 2020, another male senior staff member boasted about sales income from concession stands during the tournament. The reason for the sales bump? “We sold beer,” Freedman recalls the manager claiming. “So, for Euro 2024 let’s write down two must-haves – alcohol and women. Then it will be the best party ever.”

“One of the reasons for writing the book was because it wasn’t one isolated incident that occurred,” Freedman says. “It was systemic. Every week I could have another story. Every time I was brave enough to speak up there was no accountability and no punishment. I felt like I was talking to a brick wall. That’s a bit like what we are seeing now with Spain. The evidence is clear and obvious. There is no VAR necessary. If there is still no accountability or punishment, how is that going to encourage women to speak up?”

The title for Freedman’s book comes from personal experience as a fan following England at the 2004 European Championships in Portugal. Trying to enter a crowded bar in Lisbon before a game, a group of England fans erupted in unison to chant: “Get your tits out … get your tits out … get your tits out for the lads!”

Freedman still remembers the incident in detail, almost 20 years later. “Within seconds it had gone from one or two guys to hundreds of men, singing deafeningly, simultaneously pointing and staring right at us,” she says. “It is still commonly said to women. Mainly in England, but also across Europe at many stadiums.”

In the US, the theme remains familiar if not exactly the same. According to Women In Soccer, an advocacy and networking organization, feedback from members identify a “boys club and workplace cultural norms detrimental to the advancement of our members’ careers at all levels”.

Rachel LaSala, co-founder and managing director of Women In Soccer, says problems are widespread.

“From top broadcasting companies to athletic departments in colleges, we have hundreds of members who have turned to the network in hopes of finding camaraderie and solutions to the pervasive problems they face, often brought on by or as a result of sexism,” she says. “It’s past time that it comes to an end.”

Spain’s World Cup final win in Sydney finally provided the players power and a platform to speak out about multiple issues with origins that go back years. In the United States, obtaining personal power echoes some of the hurdles the US women’s team faced during its battle for pay equity.

“It makes me sick to the stomach that the men in charge clearly think that they can do what they want and get away with it but now that the players have won the World Cup they have such a huge platform to get out the frustration,” says Tracy Hamm, head coach of the University of California, Davis, women’s team and a former professional player.

“In the US, no one initially wanted to make a big deal of [the pay disparity dispute] because they felt like they were replaceable and if they didn’t want to play then that roster spot would be filled by someone who didn’t care what they were being paid. I am sure that with a lot of other federations no one wants their voices to go on record because they don’t feel like they have enough power where their job is protected.”

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Hamm, who played for Atlanta Beat and FC Gold Pride in the short-lived pre-NWSL Women’s Professional Soccer league, encountered her own brick wall in trying to advance her coaching career. She was refused a waiver available for former professional players to enter the US Soccer Federation licensing system at a higher level because the USSF claimed she did not have the requisite three years of professional playing experience.

Hamm argued she had five years at the highest level available for women to play in the US, pointing out there was no professional league for women at the time to gain “professional” playing experience. The USSF refused to budge on its Kafkaesque requirement that was impossible for many women to operate within.

Players of América and Barcelona hold a banner in support of Jennifer Hermoso, before a friendly in Mexico City.
Players of América and Barcelona hold a banner in support of Jennifer Hermoso, before a friendly in Mexico City. Photograph: Eduardo Verdugo/AP

“The waiver requirements were written for men,” Hamm says. “I don’t think the rules were written maliciously by US Soccer. They were written because at the time there was only a pro league that existed for men. When they were writing the waiver requirements they didn’t consider that women would want professional coaching licenses or that they would be professionally alienating or excluding half of the demographic.”

Rather than argue with a brick wall, Hamm decided to walk around it. She applied to take a Uefa B license and then A license, hosted by the Football Association of Wales. Her experience in Wales was captured in a short film, Coach, where classmates included former Liverpool striker Peter Crouch and Mido, the Egyptian who played across Europe with spells at Tottenham Hotspur, Ajax, and Roma. Despite Uefa’s open arms, Hamm was the only woman taking the course. Even Uefa admits that just 6% of qualified coaches across Europe are women.

“I don’t know if that is systemic but we don’t provide opportunities for women to have success and we don’t mentor them and we don’t show that coaching is a viable career,” Hamm says. “Youth coaching and youth soccer is an old boys club in a lot of ways. I think most clubs would love to hire women. There are just not enough women that are getting supported to stay in coaching or to learn. Or once they get into a club they are not being promoted.”

Hamm is optimistic the US college coaching scene will soon see an influx of female coaches. College sports in the US are controlled by the NCAA, operating outside the realm of the United States Soccer Federation and Fifa. As previously reported by the Guardian, it lacks any accountability and is a world that moves slowly. How slowly? Just like American politics, generational change at the top is not a trend. Anson Dorrance, the 72-year-old head coach of the University of North Carolina women’s team, has held that position since 1979 – including a part-time stint leading the US women’s national team to the 1991 World Cup title.

“In the next 10 years there will be a big influx of female college coaches,” Hamm says. “A lot of male coaches have been around for a long time and are going to retire. I think a lot of college athletic directors want qualified women but it’s a matter of them getting experience. There are so many female assistants that they will get the experience that they need to have success.”

According to Women In Soccer’s Pip Penman, industry organizations and institutions need to establish and – importantly – enforce clear policies when it comes to workplace harassment.

“If policies are made explicit in club culture, community members are more likely to feel empowered to speak out against a policy violation,” Penman says. “Then it is up to decision-makers to hold individuals to account or discontinue employment with anyone who threatens the well-being of their environment. Industry leaders are responsible for making soccer a safe place for everyone.”

While she sees some growth in the grassroots, Freedman is pessimistic that change will ever come from the top.

“Maybe the people at the top genuinely don’t believe that there is anything wrong,” she says. “Rather than being for the greater good, everyone is looking after themselves, their own job, their own little group of people who think like them. If we brush it under the carpet it will be forgotten about and next week we will be talking about something else. I think that is what the Spanish federation thought about this. They would get away with it.”

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