On the face of it high-profile women are hard to find at the World Cup. There are no female match officials, no stadium announcers, and few women heads of state or government officials watching games with Gianni Infantino.
The fans of some teams in Russia reflect a more mixed picture; the other day a journalist asked us why the north European sides appear to have fewer women in the stands than the Latin Americans, or even the Saudis and Iranians.
The fact is that in most countries football is still seen as the preserve of men. From the number of women involved in leadership, the storylines of TV advertising, the constant TV close-ups of attractive women in the crowd, to the number of female toilets inside stadiums – the role of women is passive, often as objects of adornment.
But what about all the women on screen? We’ll get to that in a minute…
Fighting for space
Women have been fighting for their space on the pitch, in the stands and across governing structures for decades. And despite recent changes – the number of women on the FIFA council, the focus on developing female stars, and the commercialisation of the Women’s World Cup – it seems that when it comes to the (men’s) World Cup, women are still coming face to face with sexism.
Because that is exactly what has been happening on the streets of host cities in Russia. Incident after incident shows male fans, sometimes in groups, approaching women in ways that would be deemed sexual harassment in their own countries. In the first few days Brazilian fans were filmed ‘teaching’ a Russian woman to chant about her genitals. One video from a Costa Rica supporter showed him coaching a Russian woman to say “I want to suck your dick” in Spanish.
Another video emerged of a Colombia fan approaching two female Japanese fans asking them to recite abusive words.
The Brazilian fans were reported to the police and could face deportation, fines and prison. In Colombia, government authorities condemned the incident, saying it “degrades women, insults other cultures, our language and our country” and called on fans of the tricolour to respect others.
Comportamiento de hinchas que hacen repetir mensajes groseros en español a dos mujeres japonesas no solo degrada a la mujer, insulta a otras culturas, nuestro idioma y a nuestro país. Inaudito maltratar a una mujer aprovechándose de las barreras idiomáticas.
— Cancillería Colombia (@CancilleriaCol) June 19, 2018
Despite not being in the tournament, Paraguay has also been involved in this turmoil. Two Paraguayan journalists covering the World Cup shared a video online where they are seen asking a woman to say “I have a big vagina” in Guaraní – an indigenous language. When asked about the meaning of the sentence, one of them responded it meant, “I like Paraguay”.
Their behaviour prompted condemnation from the Paraguayan Embassy in Russia.
And so it was following this pattern that the world witnessed an incident involving Deutsche Welle journalist Julieth González Therán who was assaulted while doing her job.
It’s difficult to get inside the head of the kind of man who would do this. He could have just photo-bombed her, but he wanted to lean in, kiss her and touch her breast (before running away, of course). He was quite simply playing power games, showing her and the world that he could impose himself on her anytime he wanted – even while she was live on air.
The incident can be seen here (00:13).
Sexual harassment is not okay. It needs to stop. In football, and elsewhere.pic.twitter.com/O0S1a1F4Es
— DW Sports (@dw_sports) June 20, 2018
And she was not alone. Two other TV reporters have also spoken up about sexual harassment by fans in Russia. Globo Brazil journalist Júlia Guimarães and Malin Wahlberg of the Swedish channel Aftonbladet TV were both forcibly kissed while on air.
Advertising and media imagery set the tone
At every World Cup, advertising campaigns and media imagery perpetrate stereotypes of female fans – the clueless bystander who doesn’t understand footballor the ‘sexy lady’ selling products. This is in spite of the fact that 40% of the TV audience are women. Don’t just take our word for it. That figure is the official FIFA analysis of TV audiences for the 2014 World Cup.
Get your kits out!: Colombian artists paints models in World Cup strips (PHOTOS) https://t.co/BRRqRMPpwh
— RT Sport (@RTSportNews) May 31, 2018
In Russia there has been another layer to it. The stereotype of the Russian woman as a promiscuous Slavic goddess has been part of the narrative from some quarters at this World Cup, not just fans on the streets.
In May, the Argentine Football Association held a training course for officials travelling to Russia. It included a guide with content on picking up Russian women.
In Egypt, a reporter wrote an article voicing the concerns of Egyptian women worried about their husbands travelling to Russia and being adulterous with the locals.
And in Russia itself, the day before the opening ceremony, a member of parliament, Tamara Pletnyova, head of the ‘family, women and children’s affairs committee’, told Russian women not to have “intimate relations” with foreigners during the World Cup and warned against biracial babies!
Double whammy. Not only does she not trust the Russian sisters to behave, but is also worried about the prospect of brown babies. President Putin’s spokesman put her right. “As for our Russian women, they will make their own judgment,” he said.
Spaces for women to make their mark
Paradoxically there is another story to this World Cup. One that sees the spaces for women to make their mark growing.
For the first time in the history of the tournament the General Secretary of FIFA (basically the Chief Executive of global football) is a woman. And yes of course, she has energy and talent. Some commentators have taken the presence of Saudi women among their fans as proof that they are shaping the image of a new culture there.
And Iranian women have taken the opportunity to travel to Russia to sit inside World Cup stadiums to make a campaigning statement about their own lack of opportunities at home. With a lot of success.
Four years ago today several Iranian women went to the Iran v Brazil volleyball match defying a law that forbids them from attending sporting events. Today some of them are at the #WorldCup to further the fight for their rights @openStadiums pic.twitter.com/O9h7Qi7dWW
— Fare (@farenet) June 15, 2018
The biggest progress has probably come in the growing number of women reporting on the event for broadcasters and news agencies. We have listed 44 involved in front line broadcasting at the World Cup, we know there are many more.
In some countries such as the UK, this visible presence of new TV commentators, pundits and reporters has led to debate. The women performing the roles have been exceptional, much of the discourse has sadly been anything but.
Our 44 Female broadcasters at the World Cup:
Débora Rey y Yésica Brumec, AP
Gabby Logan, BBC
Alex Scott, BBC
Vicki Sparks, BBC
Natalie Pirks, BBC News
Margot Dumont, Beinsports
Anne-Laure Bonnet, Beinsports
Marinela Lugano, Buen Dia
Marina Lorenzo, Canal Plus France
Cecilia Caminos, DPA
Sarah Castro Lizarazo, Diario AS
Julieth González Therán, Deutsche Welle
Nati Jota and Agostina Larocca, ESPN
Carolina Padron, ESPN Colombia
Isabelly Moraiis, Fox Sports Brasil
Barbara do Monte Barbosa, Fox Sports Brasil
Vanessa Riche, Fox Sports Brasil
Jenny Gamez, Futbolred
Marion Reimers, FoxSports
Ana Maria Navarrete, Gol Caracol Colombia
Joana Boloña, ESPN Peru
Florencia Simoes, FIFA
Marina Granziera, Gol Caracol
Talia Azcarate, GolPeru
Ana Lucia Rodriguez, GolPeru
Jazmin Pinedo, Latina
Jackie Oatley, ITV
Seema Jaswal, ITV
Eniola Aluko, ITV
Alejandra Labraga, Montecarlo Televison
Romina Antoniazzi, Peru Football Association
Beatriz Pereyra, Proceso
Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Reuters
Andrea Guerrero, RCN
Marirró Varela, Radio Nihuil and Canal 7 de Mendoza
Milena Merino, Radio Programas del Peru
Julia Guimaraes, Sport TV / Globo
Viviana Vila, Telemundo Deportes
Nathalie Iannetta, TF1
Charlotte Namura, TF1
Verónica Brunati, TNTSports
Laura Couto, Telemundo
Liliana Salazar, Winsports