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by Abigail Anaba
Lagos Nigeria – It was way back in 1986 that then Chairperson of the Norwegian Women’s Committee and first woman ever to address the FiFA Congress, Ellen Willes led a global advocacy campaign in her famous speech during the organisation’s 45th gathering in Mexico City.
At that occasion, she did appeal for both a women’s World Cup and inclusion in Olympic games, but even at that time, she did not realise her call would lead to what has come to be known as the beginning of global female football.
First, invitational 12 team friendlies was played in 1988. Just three years later, the first FIFA organised women’s world cup competition was held in China. Before a 65,000 spectators at the finals at Tianhe Stadium the United States lifted the golden trophy.
Interestingly, Nigeria was one of the countries representing the six confederates at what was then known as the 1st FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup (M&M Candy were the sole sponsors) . The six confederates presented 18 teams with one country coming from Africa. Anne Chiejine who kept goal for the Nigerian National team that went for that tournament confesses that they were not really ready for the level of football they met at the tournament. “When we got there we saw that it was a big tournament,” she says.
Since then elite female football has grown such that 24 countries are now presented at the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Their qualification process is just like that of men. The six confederates play qualifiers until four countries are picked from each group
Over the years, the Nigerian female team has represented the country in each successive world cup but their dream to thrive in the world arena has always been truncated. They have however always maintained their status as Africa’s champions.
The FIFA organised competition along with the youth versions created a demand for female footballers. Countries across the world started creating female leagues, patterned along the lines of the male teams. But not all have been very successful. In Nigeria for instance, the female league has been teething for several years despite being Africa’s champions eight out of ten times since 1998.
The game is not developing as fast as it should and quite a good number of talents encounter still births. By far the biggest reason for this is sexism in football. In 1971, the English FA banned football for women saying it is “quite unsuitable for females”. Although, this ban was lifted years later, it mirrors the mind set of male dominated football bodies who often do not give female football the attention it deserves. The fact that only two national football associations world over have women at the top does not help the course of women either.
However, in most cases, opposition comes from the women themselves. “Everyone gave me a go ahead except my mum,” says Faith Okoli who has not had the opportunity to go professional. “Her strongest reason is that the game is rough and she wouldn’t want her little baby to get hurt.” Living in a country that has no social security or any other safety net specifically created for sports persons, Mrs Okoli’s fear is rational. Plus, the fact that Nigeria has a large number of male footballers who have been abandoned even after serving their country. Yet, injury is a core downside of playing the game has not helped the situation. Super Falcons Defender Onome Ebi, who suffered an injury during their 2016 match against Cameroun which put her out of action for most of the 2017 season explains it in her in words, “The moment you choose the game you should be ready for [injury]. It’s just God all the way that prevent that from coming.
It goes without saying that some insurance taken out on behalf of the girls can keep them playing with minimal fear of injury. When a person is fortunate to join a club then it is easier to cope as the club is expected to have the players insured. But, with the issues with structure and funding the Women’s League has been having, many women have their eyes fixed on leaving the country. Onome who once played for FC Minsk of Belarus concurs, “They have all and are organized: Facilities, care and love, and better pay.”
Pay has been a huge factor making many women give up on the game even before they start. Prior to 2007, participants at the Women’s World Cup did not receive any prize money at all from FIFA. The winners got $1million. This was increased to $2 million at the last competition. Whereas, a male team that got eliminated during the first round of last year’s World Cup got $8 million and the winners got $35 million.
In Nigeria, while the Super Eagles have a fixed match bonus of $5,000 for a win in an international match, the women get anything the NFF decides. “Maybe $500,maybe N100k, just anything,” China Acheru, a veteran Sports Journalist submits. In December 2016, the Nigerian female team, fresh from a Continental win staged a protest at the Nigerian National Assembly which forced the Nigerian Government to pay their allowances.
The story is worse at the Local level. Susan Nkechi, who says she is presently looking for work but plays amateur football because she has a passion for it tells NewsWireNGR that women in the local league get paid about N10,000.0. (~$29) per win.”It depends on the match prizes. But the average I have witnessed so far is N10,000.” Susan, who alternates between striker and midfielder is unhappy about the state of Nigerian local football. “Here in Nigeria, we don’t usually take women football team seriously like that of men. Or will I say sports has never been one of Nigeria’s concern.” Speaking in particular about Nigerian female football, she laments that they do not get the type of exposure their male counterparts get. She wonders why there is no African Women’s Champions League. “Like this local league( rangers and other teams), women are supposed to have that same category and also matches with other African countries.” The only continental female championship currently played is the equivalent of the African Cup of Nations. Nothing in the realm of the UEFA Women’s Cup Championship exists. However, the Nigerian Women’s League has been recently injected with more competent hands and former Sports Journalist Aisha Falode now serves as Independent Chairperson. “With the new board members we have in the women’s league things are looking more different though,” Onome asserts. “They are really working to make all that change.”
It is hoped that as Ms Falode gets to work, she will not just assist in making the female league more structured but also do something about getting more young girls to play by removing the ‘either or factor’. Faith Okoli quoted earlier also mentions another reason her mother didn’t want her to play, “Football scouts came looking for me but my mum turned them down. My mum said I’d have to finish my first degree first.”
Young girls are forced to choose between playing football and going to school. This is a tough choice as most girls tend to pick going to school which assures them of a more secure future than playing football when they are unsure they can make a living through it. “You have to join an academy. Present your self and train with them so the coaches can watch your skills,” Susan suggests. Private academies often give girls an opportunity for visibility but are vague about curriculum studies. Yet, they are not a substitute for university scholarships.
“I’m sure these scholarships exist,” a university lecture who spoke under conditions of anonymity insists. “They are just not advertised like it is done abroad. Maybe when a coach sees a sports person then want for their school during the NUGA games, they can put in a word and the person might get a one year scholarship. I know I have met students on such scholarships,” he concludes. If such scholarships were better handled and well quota-ed then girls who qualify could get an opportunity to school and play. In Faith’s case, she had to listen to her mother and complete her first degree. “I intend to go back to the field to get fit and then travel abroad to further my studies as well as try playing over there,” she says.
By the time these girls are through with their first degrees they are usually too old to play for the Flamingoes, the under 17 Falcon’s feeder team. The girls are often forced to reduce their ages. “If you are skilful player and you are been called for league (like U17) then you have to reduce your age,” one of the girls insists. Age tampering is criminal and can lead to teams being disqualified. Also, the rigour of training and playing for an inappropriate age bracket has an impact on quality of football and will eventually lead to early retirement of the players thus creating gaps in the system.
One fact remains, if concerted effort is not made to bridge the gap between male and female football the female game will keep struggling. Norway has again taken the lead to resolve the issue of equal pay. In early December, 2017, an agreement was signed at the Norwegian embassy in London with Johansen and Mjelde joined by representatives of the Norwegian Football Association (NFF) and Norway’s players’ association (NISO) for equal pay for men and women who represent the country internationally.
While addressing equal pay makes for good optics, it should not be forgotten that the pay is often a result of the commercial viability of the game. Tosin, an avid football fan in Nigeria says as much as he likes the game, he will not be willing to part with too much money for it. “The game has to be made attractive to a TV audience. Female tennis could do this because it is aesthetically pleasing to watch.”
The aesthetics of football is based on the skills exhibited by the players. But with what has been described as “technical gaps” in the overall play of the female teams it seems that a bigger problem is developing the level of play and skills of the girls. This calls for the an increase in the number of academies run exclusively for women. “I started off training with boys around me,” Susan affirms. Onome agrees, “I started playing with guys in my compound.” When more girls only academies are set up, competitiveness in the game also increases as there will be more opportunities for the best to be appraised. This reduces the “either/or” factor for young girls like Faith Okoli.
As is happening in China, government may need to take the lead in financing female football and then getting private sector support for the game. Giving more women opportunities in football boards will also go a long way to providing the needed push for the game.
As has been shown, the question is no longer whether women have the ability to play a male dominated sport, they have shown they can. The question now is, will we incentivise these women to find their feet in the game?
To borrow the words from the Gender Gap Report 2017, “In a wide range of economies, a variety of
social circumstances limit girls’ and women’s access to technology and therefore their ability to gain proficiency in its use.” One of these social circumstances is what has been described as “unconscious biases” which “can influence their peers’ recognition of their capabilities.” If women are exposed to the same technologies at the same time and rate in which their male counterparts are, there is no evidence that they cannot be just as good as boys. Perhaps the game that needs to be won is the battle of the mind. If women’s football is to grow then there needs, most of all, to be a change in mindset.