‘Bend It Like Beckham’: Does Women’s Football Need a David Beckham?

As news of Iran’s gender testing laws for women in football surface, and football season gets back into full swing internationally, the discussion surrounding women’s presence in the sport finds its way back to the fore. A sports enthusiast and a self-proclaimed ‘avid Arsenal fan’ herself, Kadie Kposowa makes her debut to the No Fly on the WALL blog by asking us whether or not Women’s football needs its own David Beckham-like figure to garner the respect it truly deserves. Read on and see what she has to say.

Ask even the most avid hater of football to name you any football player and nine times out of ten his name will pass their lips. He’s that guy with the hairstyles, he’s married to that Spice Girl, he’s that guy with all those tattoos and he’s that guy who’s done ALL those adverts. Earning an estimated £43million from endorsements alone, David Beckham is the most recognised and therefore most marketable football player of all time. From shirt sales to Sharpies, from Armani to Adidas and even his own perfume range, he has become probably the single most powerful ambassador for football globally. Everywhere he has gone has seen a surge in football coverage. Of course, being so famous meant he became recognised for more than his footballing ability, but in this day and age publicity is publicity and football thrives off it – on and off the pitch.

Now, if I were to ask the most avid football fan to name me women’s ‘answer’ to David Beckham, I can guarantee that they would be hard pressed to pick someone. There is Birgit Prinz, Mia Hamm and of course, Marta Vieira da Silva but at the end of the day there is no one quite on Beckham’s level in terms of representing the sport. Nevertheless, on football fields across the planet, boys and girls declare they want to be just like David Beckham or Ronaldo, or Zidane and Pele. I find it sad that girls don’t grow up with female footballing icons the way boys do. There are women’s leagues but the coverage in comparison to men’s football is nearly zero. In Britain girls are more encouraged to compete in individual sports, such as tennis or athletics rather than team sports such as football and rugby, most likely because of lack of money.  When I was younger, and indeed it is still an ideal career for me, I aspired to become a professional footballer. I was met with unconditional support from my father and with derision from my mother, who asked me to name a rich and famous footballer. Inevitably I had no answer, and so my dreams of stardom were suppressed. Primary school teachers were both impressed by my ability, and quick to push me into something else, insisting I wouldn’t get far before realising it was ‘pointless’.

In 2007, Wimbledon changed its rules and now awards the same amount of money to both Women’s and Men’s Singles champions, despite the fact that women spend less time on the court due to playing only three sets per match compared to men playing five. Because of the physical differences between men and women, it was decided that men should play for the best of five sets, meaning their tennis matches can potentially go on for hours on end. Ironically, there have been many complaints from male tennis players arguing that, per hour, women get paid more and in trying to even out the game, Wimbledon has completely flipped the game and given women an edge.

No such progress has been made in football. I personally discovered for myself, after attending trials that women footballers usually take up second jobs in order to supplement their careers. The average earning per annum for a professional male footballer in the Premier League is £676,000 while their female counterparts would be ‘doing well’ to see £18,000. Unbelievably, even a semi-professional male footballer would earn roughly £25,000, and he wouldn’t even be of the same calibre of a female professional. Of course, depending on the position you play, you will earn more or less than the average figure. For the same work rate, for the same job, regardless of performance, a female professional footballer earns less than 3% of the salary taken by her male equivalent. Cristiano Ronaldo, for example, earns something in the region of £200,000 a week. If I were to think of a female equivalent to him in terms of ability, Marta Vieira da Silva springs to mind. She is the most decorated female footballer of all time, winning the FIFA World Player of the Year award consecutively for five years. While she earns £875,000 a year, Ronaldo earns about £8million a year, even though you could easily say they are equally matched in terms of skill and finesse. The inequality is simply beyond belief.

In order to understand such staggering statistics and why women’s football is so poorly invested in, it is necessary to acknowledge that women have only very recently been recognised as professional footballers.  Initially in the 1920s women’s football had a large audience but this diminished when the FA banned women’s teams from playing at the grounds of their member clubs. The ban was lifted in 1971 which saw a much slower rise in interest in the game. England’s most successful women’s team, Arsenal Ladies, was only formed in 1987. Manchester United, one of the juggernauts of modern football, does not even have a women’s team. A petition has been started asking them to create one, which you can sign here. It is unbelievable that a club of Manchester United’s stature has failed to establish a ladies team but it sadly reflects the attitude many people have to women’s football. Some say it’s boring, some say they watch women’s sports to watch breasts move around beneath shirts (!), and others just insist all female footballers are butch lesbians (!). Potential sponsors are discouraged by the non-existent women’s football fan base; whereas footballers like David Beckham or Cristiano Ronaldo could sign sponsorship deals safe in the knowledge that this income won’t be snatched from them because of silly reasons such as, ‘there’s just no money in it’.   This lack of interest from a wider audience deters investors and means the FA can avoid any debate on developing the sport at all levels. At the end of the day, it is simple ‘supply and demand’: there is nowhere near enough demand for women’s football, but until recently it seemed there was no one, bar actual players and managers, willing to build up a reputation for the sport.

I was once told by a teacher at school that if I truly wanted to become a professional footballer, I would have to consider moving to America or Germany, where women’s football is a much bigger part of the sport and widely acknowledged and respected. Sporting opportunities are much more advantageous in America because unlike in Britain, America has created a seamless culture of merging sport with education. For example, if a student discovers a niche in “soccer”, they can train, play in games and compete in tournaments with the only requirement being they achieve certain grades by the time they leave college. If they do not maintain said grades throughout school, they are dropped from the team. Britain’s education system does not accommodate for sport as it is, regardless of gender. More often than not, in order to pursue sport seriously, a student has to make the time for this outside of school, as a parallel interest. Ignoring extreme headlines, America appears to have a less conservative society than our own and while you do get the inevitable chauvinist sect, their culture means women are seen as ‘plain’ for not taking an interest in something outside education. Part of the American dream, of course, is that gender cannot and should not restrict a woman from being on the same platform as men around her, and this attitude means it is miles ahead of Britain in terms of promoting women’s football.

I initially asked whether women’s football needed a ‘David Beckham’ – a walking brand and ambassador who could take women’s football to the masses, but I feel I might be coming to the conclusion that the environment in which she could carry the torch for women does not even exist yet. Perhaps I was being subconsciously sexist myself in demanding a David Beckham. Maybe women’s football needs a Billie Jean King.

 


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