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12 July 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 3:00pm

Megan Rapinoe and her teammates have politicised football in the best way possible

We must pay attention to the intersection between sports and politics, especially in women’s football. 

By Cate Sevilla

There are quite a few people who think that women entertainers should keep their mouths shut and perform. Whether it’s the Dixie Chicks being told to shut up and sing or Serena Williams being criticised for arguing a call – opinions, grievances and emotions should all be kept silent, and the show should go on. Little girls should be seen and not heard. 

Try telling that to Megan Rapinoe. 

The Fifa Women’s World Cup 2019 will go down in history for many, many reasons. Not only the incredible quality of the playing, or the incredible viewing figures of the USA vs Netherlands final, but also – and most importantly – because of the politicisation of the tournament. I would even go so far to call it positive politicisation.

Sure, everyone is sick to the teeth of politicians on both sides of the pond, if not globally. However, as they say, the personal is the political. And if you’re a woman or an ally who agrees in the fundamental pillar of equality – equal pay for equal work – then you can’t fault any of the athletes using this global platform as a way of heightening awareness of their cause. If they hadn’t, it would have been a massive missed opportunity. Bad marketing. Bad business.

For example, back in 2016 members of the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) filed a class action lawsuit against US Soccer, claiming discrimination in pay. Did you even notice? 

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In 2017, Norway made history by granting equal pay to its women and men’s national soccer teams. Did you notice? 

Ada Hegerberg, winner of the 2018 Ballon d’Or (who was shockingly asked to twerk after accepting her award)  refused to play in this year’s World Cup because of Fifa’s gender pay gap. Again, did you notice?    

Look, I’m what you could call a Massive Feminist and I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t really recall any of the above happening. 

But I’m guessing you’ve heard about that arrogant, pink-haired American lesbian Megan Rapinoe who made the World Cup “all about her”, right? You heard about her saying she’s “not going to the fucking White House”? You heard that she didn’t sing the national anthem, and didn’t put her hand on her heart like a good little American girl. (You then also probably heard about the time that she, gasp, KNEELED!) You probably heard her say that it was “science” that America couldn’t win the World Cup without gay girls. And did you see her, arms stretched, chin up, chest out, celebrating and relishing in the crowd appreciating how goddamn good she is at her job? 

I bet you did. You saw her. You heard about her. You heard the crowd chanting “EQUAL PAY” as she and her teammates gathered up all their gold, silver and bronze hardware after the final whistle and that’s the difference. 

The 99ers walked so the 19ers could run. 

Brandi Chastain ripped her shirt off so Megan Rapinoe could one day, essentially, tell the president to fuck off. 

And this is why it’s important – no, wonderful  – that this World Cup became a place for both politics and football, because they are interlinked. It’s akin to what feminists call intersectionality. We must pay attention to the intersection between sports and politics, especially in women’s football, because for a supposedly beautiful game, it can be incredibly ugly.

As this eye-opening Time article points out, beyond the spotlight of Rapinoe vs Trump, women are blocked from playing football across the globe. South American countries are having to rebuild their women’s football teams up from dust, after they were all but obliterated. The abuse of athletes is rampant – and while things are undeniably so different across most European countries, as France’s head coach Corinne Diacre said, “It’s true that it’s more difficult for [women], the difficulties are multiplied by two. We know it’s always been like that, so we have to deal with it. But there [can be] a lot of wickedness.”

A less discussed but incredibly important reason why the USWNT is as good as it is actually down to public policy. You can see the impact that Title XI – a law from 1972 that prohibits discrimination in education programmes and activities that receive federal financial assistance – has had on generations of women who were young girls that were inspired by watching the ‘91 or ‘99 World Cup and who then had access to school teams and clubs so they could actually learn how to play. 

And while far too many countries are still facing issues the mentioned systemic issues of abuse, corruption and the dismantling of their women’s clubs, the UK is in a position where it can take on the USWNT. But if the national teams of Scotland or England are ever to become world champions or dare to also use the word “dynasty” in the future, the UK must first reconcile with the numbers and its own public policies. For example, the Guardian reports that while the US has 21,065 licensed female coaches, 12 per cent of their total, England only has 3,520 – 5 per cent of the total. England coach Phil Neville says, “We’re working on [grassroots] and making great strides. That takes four or five years and we’re 18 months into that.” 

For a game and a worldwide system of federations that can be so disproportionately white, so disproportionately middle class – it is really important to acknowledge and celebrate the diversity and representation that teams like the US showcase. As Megan Rapinoe said in her victory speech before the New York Ticker Parade of her team, “We have pink hair and purple hair. We have tattoos, dreadlocks. We’ve got white girls, black girls, and everything in between. Straight girls, [and] gay girls”. 

Every bit of representation counts, and one could argue that the women’s leagues and national teams are much more inclusive than the men’s. For example, across the entire 2019 World Cup, there were at least 41 female players or coaches who are openly gay or bisexual. The men’s 2018 tournament had zero. Even better, the final between the US and the Netherlands also showcased the highest number of out players in a final, ever – at least five on each team. 

Again, this is something to shout about.

As Alex Morgan said in her acceptance speech at the ESPY awards this week, “Investment in women and girls should not only occur on the playing field but in more storytelling of badass, amazing women who continue to show that we are more than just athletes.” 

“We are more than just athletes” is something this team has said over and over again. And while not everyone is happy to listen, and while not everyone agrees, every athlete who used their platform of the World Cup to push public policy, the pay gap, a lawsuit, or to celebrate gay girls or brown girls was absolutely right to do so.

You can’t “make” football political, it is political – but it’s easier to tune out and forget about that when your multi-millionaire dudes are winning and keeping up the comfortable status quo of what’s always been. So you tune out rape allegations and injunctions and racial attacks so you can just watch the game. Well, these women can’t, and they won’t. And they shouldn’t. And that’s the tea.

Cate Sevilla is an editor and journalist whose previous roles include editor in chief of The Pool and managing editor of BuzzFeed UK.

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