It’s never easy to be a woman during the men’s World Cup. Suddenly, a sport that has ritualistically excluded us becomes all-consuming, sneaking its way into every crevice of mainstream culture. They’ve got it on the massive TVs at work. It’s now legitimate to scream “Go on, son!” at random intervals during the day. Your colleagues keep making you donate £3 to a plastic bag of lost hopes in exchange for a sad, paper flag of Morocco.
Even at the highest level, women have their fair share of difficulties. The female commentators in this year’s men’s World Cup — Eni Aluko and Alex Scott — have done an outstanding job of navigating the patronising minefield of the punditry box. Both pioneers in their field and experienced football players, Aluko and Scott have had to prove themselves beyond expectations, rewarded only with the patronising surprise of a male colleague, or having their analysis literally repeated back to them by the Phil Neville.
However, according to Simon Kelner in his iNews piece, “Female world cup pundits are a step forward for diversity, but not for the quality of coverage”, they needn’t have bothered. The former Independent editor explains (“nervously”) in a column this week that the two women of colour have been included for diversity purposes, not aptitude. The numerous caps, extensive World Cup experience, and on-screen charisma of Aluko and Scott mean nothing here. Sorry ladies!
The core of Kelner’s argument seems to be that because the two have no experience in being a man, they cannot comment on a man’s competition. “Women’s football is a very different game from that played at the [men’s] World Cup,” writes Kelner, who does not play this mythical sport known as “women’s football”. “It’s like getting a netball player to discuss major league basketball,” he explains. I wonder how he feels about a journalist discussing professional football.
What even is the logical conclusion to Kelner’s argument? That we should, forevermore, ban talented female football players from speaking on any coverage of the men’s World Cup? What about male commentators who have never played in a World Cup? Should we force all theatre critics to write at least one Pulitzer Prize-winning play before penning a review? Or, as Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman tweets, does Kelner’s bizarre future require Crufts to be solely covered by dogs?
Kelner also seems to have forgotten the purpose of sports punditry (to be fair, he’s not a football commentator, so how could he know?). Football punditry is not meant to be an exact representation of players on the pitch, but an expert panel discussing and analysing the sport. Diversity on a panel is simply the result of equality of opportunity.
If the focus were on getting commentators as similar as possible to those on the pitch, rather than those actually proficient in the role, we’d be pulling attacking midfielders into the studio at half-time to give an out-of-breath, sweaty take on Iceland’s disciplined defence.
The worst thing is not, however, the logical potholes in Kelner’s piece. The worst thing is that the article tries to disguise itself as a reasonable —indeed, at times, feminist — opinion, when it’s just another, tired argument by a man refusing to accept the visibility of an oppressed group. The article hides its misogyny behind arguments sold as watertight logic. Hey! It seems to say. This isn’t sexism — did you spot that first paragraph about how great Aluko is? This is fair! This is reasonable!
Unfortunately for Kelner, his rhetoric can’t save him here. There is no way of arguing that two women should not be on our screens during the men’s World Cup, without also arguing their gender makes them innately worse at the job. There’s no “reasonable” way to legitimise misogyny.
Scott and Aluko aren’t there for “diversity”, but because one is a retired professional football player and the other this month signed to play for top-league Italian side Juventus – and both have a compelling screen presence.
Only someone who expects less of women would miss those glaring credentials.