‘Pay my friends!’: Why are so many superstars sitting out the Women’s World Cup?
When the Matildas ran out for their third and final Cup of Nations clash last week, winning wasn’t the only thing on their minds. They also took the opportunity to signal their support for a revolution that is sweeping through the women’s game – in particular, three teams ranked inside FIFA’s top 10, all of them among the favourites to win the Women’s World Cup.
Every player wore purple tape on their wrists in a show of solidarity with Canada, their Group B opponents at the World Cup and reigning Olympic gold medallists who are at war with their national federation.
Sam Kerr wore a purple wristband last week against Jamiaca, scrawled with the message: ‘Pay my friends!’Credit:Getty
“Pay my friends!” was the message scrawled across Sam Kerr’s wrist in black texta, before she and other Matildas stars aired their views further on social media after beating Jamaica 3-0.
Purple was the colour of the T-shirts Canada’s players wore before matches at the SheBelieves Cup last month, a friendly tournament they were effectively forced to play in by Canada Soccer. They wanted to go on strike, in protest at budget cuts which they said have compromised their preparations for the Women’s World Cup, but were threatened with legal action by the federation, so forged ahead in protest.
None of Canada’s players have been paid by Canada Soccer for their work in 2022, and their calls for equality have been backed up by their national men’s team. They have since vowed to boycott an upcoming pre-World Cup camp next month, questioning why their funding is being reduced when Canada’s national teams have never been more successful.
It’s not only the Matildas who are in their corner. Japan and England also wore purple wristbands in recent matches while the US women’s national team said Canada was facing the “same pervasive misogyny and unequal treatment” they once dealt with during their fight for equal pay.
Spain, France and Canada – all ranked inside FIFA’s top 10 women’s nations – have had their World Cup preparations rocked by mass player boycotts and protests.Credit:Getty
While the president of Canada Soccer, Nick Bontis, resigned this week and acknowledged that “this moment requires change”, his exit alone will not assuage the players.
Similar spotfires are breaking out across Europe, where the growing pains of women’s football and the failure of some national federations to adequately address the concerns of players are becoming increasingly apparent. Days before Wendie Renard was named in FIFA’s FIFPro Women’s World XI for a record seventh time in a row, the French captain announced she was stepping away from the national team to “preserve my mental health” because she could no longer support “the current system”.
There are few bigger names in women’s football than Renard, who plays with Matildas star Ellie Carpenter at Olympique Lyonnais, and whose statement was applauded by Norway’s Ada Hegerberg and the USA’s Megan Rapinoe – and endorsed by two other French players, Paris Saint-Germain duo Marie-Antoinette Katoto and Kadidiatou Diani, who have also ruled themselves out of selection.
Noel Le Graet, the French Football Federation president, also quit this week over allegations of sexual harassment, which could have bigger implications for the women’s team: coach Corinne Diacre, the real source of Renard’s ire, is set to have her future reviewed by an FFF committee next week. There have been long-standing tensions within the French team over Diacre’s methods and the tetchy environment she has fostered, and Renard has reportedly come to the conclusion, after trying and failing to find another solution, that they cannot be resolved while she is at the helm.
It all sounds achingly familiar to the turmoil surrounding the Spanish national team, who flew to Australia for the Cup of Nations without 15 of their best players, who have made themselves indefinitely unavailable. They claimed that playing for their country was such a draining experience it was affecting their “emotional state” – and they are now in a stand-off with coach Jorge Vilda, who has the full backing of the Spanish federation. Whether that changes upon the imminent return to fitness of Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas, who has sided with the players and shares their concerns, remains to be seen.
The women’s game is no stranger to this sort of drastic action from players, although it is a poor reflection on the sport that so many of them are so often driven to sacrificing their own careers to make precisely the same point. Most famously, Hegerberg sat out the 2019 Women’s World Cup in protest at the way Norway’s federation was treating women’s football – and only ended her five-year exile from the national team last year.
But that they have taken these steps so close to the Women’s World Cup is, according to former Matilda and Professional Footballers Association co-chief executive Kate Gill, a sign of how the management of women’s football in some countries has “spiralled into a self-defeating cycle where a number of the world’s best players feel there is no other option than to withdraw.”
“What lies at the heart of this is control and power,” said Gill, who also sits on the board of FIFPro, the global players’ union.
“All too often, those tasked with administering our game continue to seek a model that actively attempts to silence the voice of players and focus solely on extracting value from the players to serve their interests, not those of the broader game.”
Gill can speak from experience. She was part of the Matildas squad in 2015 which skipped a tour of the USA to go on a two-month strike over a dispute with Football Federation Australia over pay and conditions. FFA initially condemned their actions, but soon relented, met their demands, and now the Matildas are on equal terms with the Socceroos on pay and conditions. They have also become one Australia’s most-loved national teams in any sport, and arguably the federation’s biggest commercial drawcard.
Canada, France and Spain should learn from their example, Gill reckons – and they can start, quite simply, by listening.
“The solution is no secret,” she said. “It is a genuine commitment to collective bargaining and embedding a culture of respect for the rights of players. As we have seen with our own national teams, we can align the interests of players and the broader game through collective bargaining, both of which are inextricably linked.”
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