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What men’s football can learn from the female game

USA's Megan Rapinoe on the pitch prior to the FIFA Women's World Cup semi final match against England. Picture: Richard Sellers/PA Wire/PA Images - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

EMMA JONES on the part gay pride has played in the success of this summer’s Women’s World Cup.

“You can’t win a championship without gays on your team.” The words of US footballer Megan Rapinoe: Controversial, or just stating the bleedin’ obvious? Of course, the same is true of the men’s game, except no one feels able to say it and be proud.

The pride more associated with male football is non-queer. The misogyny in the sport, and on the terraces, is as traditional as the game itself. It still remains, and can make football a pretty repulsive place to be.

The men’s game is often the sound of dismal triggers, of misguided bloaters bellowing: “It’s coming home,” when it’s clearly not. I’ve always preferred I’m Coming Out, the gay anthem written by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. If only they could sing that.

Heading home from Tottenham following a screening of the Liverpool v Spurs Champions League final last month was a trigger moment. The Tube was packed with Spurs supporters hollering chants. As they sang, a couple of them tried to break the roof of our carriage, hitting it repeatedly with full force. What was the point, I asked a young man seated next to me in a Tottenham shirt? “Pride,” he replied, chest puffed out, identifying the state most commonly associated with the game. He forgot to prefix the word ‘male’ before ‘pride’. I didn’t point this out, given they’d just lost to Liverpool; male pride is a pretty fragile state of being.

I’m Coming Out would be a fitting soundtrack to this summer’s Women’s World Cup, which has not only established itself as a mainstream, blockbuster event in the sporting calendar, but is paving the way for gay professionals and progressiveness. Women’s football has come to be the place where being gay is actually celebrated as integral to success.

As Rapinoe puts it, there has never been a better time to be gay and play women’s football. “Go gays!” she said, after her team’s quarter-final victory over France, in which she scored twice, setting up the semi-final clash with England. “For me, to be gay and fabulous, during Pride month at the World Cup, is nice,” she added.

Rapinoe’s very public spat with Donald Trump has also done her standing as a powerful advocate for gay pride no harm at all. The president couldn’t resist responding to her insistence that she would not go to the “f**king White House”, if invited, by accusing her of disrespect on Twitter.

Rapinoe’s talismanic performances (though she missed the semi-final win over England) and attitudes have meant the USA has perhaps flown the rainbow flag highest this tournament – five members of the American team and the coach, Jill Ellis, are publicly out. However, they are far from the exception.

Gay websites have totted up at least 40 ‘out’ players at the Women’s World Cup. The figure for last year’s men’s tournament in Russia was zero.

The men’s game has tried to embrace and celebrate the LGBT community – through the ‘rainbow bootlaces’ campaign, for instance – but has a long way to go. Last year, the anti-discrimination organisation Kick It Out reported a 9% increase in homophobic abuse at games, with 111 reported in the 2017-2018 season. It would be interesting to see what that figure would be, if the fans actually had an openly gay player on the pitch in front of them.

The contrast with the women’s game is so vast, which is one of the key reasons this tournament has been so refreshing. So why is the difference quite so stark? Why does women’s football celebrate gay pride quite so well, while the men’s game is, despite the efforts of its organisers, still stuck in the closet? Perhaps it has something to do with the way women interact in a way the men’s game doesn’t?

Former Manchester United defender Naomi Hartley, who was capped by England at youth level, says she has always felt comfortable being out as a lesbian, and believes it’s down to the female mentality of supporting each other which is so integral to the game.

So what’s the problem with the men’s game? I ask my friend Dr Keina Yoshida, gay, an amateur football player and a human rights barrister.

To her, the reason for the difference is simple: men. “The women’s game has always been gay-friendly and the men’s game always been homophobic, 
because the problem is men and male spectators.”

Of course, the Women’s World Cup has not been an unqualified success. While the tournament has tackled 
some disparities, it has merely highlighted others. I managed to get along to one of the games, Australia vs. Brazil, and met the CEO of Professional Footballers Australia (PFA), John Didulica, who is lobbying FIFA for women to be awarded the same prize money as men. Last month, Didulica secured changes which will see women playing in Australia’s W-League paid at the same minimum rate as those in the men’s A-League.

Now, he and the PFA are challenging FIFA to offer parity in prize money between the men’s and the women’s World Cups, calling for an immediate doubling of total prize money to $82 million. As for why this hasn’t happened yet, Didulica says: “I’m at a loss. It’s so ridiculous.”

The pay gap is staggering. Women’s teams are competing for just 7.5% of the purse handed out at last year’s men’s World Cup.

The argument goes that women deserve less because they bring in less in sponsorship, television audiences and gate receipts. But that misses the point. If it wanted to, the football world could redistribute its revenue to equalise prize money. Wimbledon does not allocate equal prize money according to which games are viewed.

So while the Women’s World Cup has done much to instil pride, it has also provided its own trigger moments.

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