This time a month ago, few knew Toni Duggan.
Those who follow Manchester City, the England women’s football team or even women’s football more generally will, by now, be well acquainted with the goalscoring winger, yet that Duggan is not a household name is indicative of the systematic underrepresentation of women’s football.
Despite the interest that followed the Three Lionesses’ World Cup campaign this summer, only a minority could name more than a handful of members of the England team that came so close to glory in Canada, and Duggan is noticed far less than any man with an equivalent goalscoring record.
And it wasn’t for this goalscoring record that Duggan hit the headlines, nor for her impressive form with a Manchester City team who lie second in the league. Ultimately, the Scouser made news simply as a result of rumours that she is dating Sergio Agüero.
Besides The Mirror, both The Independent and The Metro ran articles along these lines. Neither publication has ever featured another article with Duggan as anything other than cursorily mentioned as part of a wider team.
Even The Sport Bible jumped on the bandwagon, taking care to explain to us just why this would make Agüero a ‘lucky guy’, with the aid of accompanying pictures. (As if Duggan is supposed to be flattered that an army of quiff-sporting masculine caricatures, whose other interests include ‘banter’ and going for a ‘cheeky Nando’s’, are now ignoring her chosen career to simply objectify her…)
Most shy away from the more overtly sexualised forms of reporting this kind of ‘news’, as epitomised by The Sport Bible, but there are enough apologists for this kind of journalism to encourage three different, national publications to run articles along these lines. After all, these rumours came from Argentinian TV – can newspapers be blamed for responding?
Yet this isn’t a response – not really. Argentinian TV reported the rumours. Toni Duggan responded on Twitter to say that this wasn’t true. Both The Mirror and The Independent ran articles on Duggan denying the rumours. Don’t see anything wrong with this? Imagine if the headline was ‘woman denies she’s dating man.’
What, then, is the purpose of such an article, if not to engage in implicit sexualisation and objectification?
Last week, I argued that football is failing minorities. This remains true. But football is failing majorities too. In most countries, women outnumber men, yet the World’s sport does much more for one half of its inhabitants than for the other. And if the Duggan story represents one thing, it’s this.
The Guardian, to its credit, has written on Duggan before in a purely sporting context, yet such articles are few and far between. Overwhelmingly, coverage of women’s football comes through an implicitly misogynistic lens, written about solely in relation to the men’s game. Duggan can only gain renown through dating (or not) Sergio Agüero, Stephanie Roche’s contender for the 2014 Puskás Award is described as resembling James Rodríguez’s effort (which was in fact scored much later) and even a FIFA President suggests that women should wear tighter shorts to encourage more male viewership.
When Sepp Blatter, supposedly the representative of both halves of the game, is talking in terms of so rigidly and sexually defined a “female aesthetic”, what chance does the women’s game have?
The women’s game attracts just a fraction of the viewership of the male equivalent. When individuals are pressed on why, the answers resemble more formulaic tropes than considered responses. “The standard is much lower in women’s football”, some say sagely, with no regard for the fact that greater attention, investment and promotion of the men’s game is responsible for the abilities of the players they watch week in week out.
Women’s football is of a lower standard than its male equivalent, but this isn’t a basic fact to be accepted and left unchallenged. Rather, this is a symptom of a deeper malaise: the neglecting of the women’s game. Particularly in England, football is still seen as a (white) man’s game, so much so that as recently as 2013, Kelly Simmons felt the need to appear in The Telegraph as head of women’s football at the FA to assert that this was not, in fact, the case.
We accept the power to transform regions, to play a crucial role in outreach towards the most vulnerable groups, to act as a vehicle for education and pleasure alike – the ethos of the World Cup is very much to celebrate this, and to spread it to the furthest corners of the globe. Yet, somehow, we still consider this a prize very much the inheritance of only one half of the planet.
If we didn’t, we’d do something about it. Progress is few and far between; whilst Premier League clubs like Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal are prepared to affiliate with their respective women’s teams, teams like Ipswich Town stop short of full affiliation and deny their counterparts access to a respectable level of facilities.
Clubs need to stop viewing their work so much as being built around a single team, generally male, and to view it more as a project, to expand their brand to include all possible groups.
For all the typically held derision towards football in America found in England, it is symptomatic that the baton of developing the women’s game has been carried far better across the Atlantic, where it can develop free from the baggage of long-held stereotypes about the men’s game.
If we want to develop women’s football, we need to start viewing its sportswomen as professionals and start recognising that parity with the men’s game is the aim. Considering the vitriolic and misogynistic anger that greeted the announcement that women’s teams would be included in FIFA 16, this is by no means a given.
Within football culture, it seems, many are closer to denying the right of women to be in the game itself than to helping to advance their position.
Women’s football must appear for its own sake in the national media – not as an object of ridicule or objectification – and we must recognise the need to invest at the game at all levels. Too often girls are dissuaded from football, whether institutionally or in terms of culture, and told it is not for them. Progress begins by changing attitudes.
There’s a whole host of reasons, from the societal and the cultural to the overtly political, that women are debarred from certain interests, sports and even jobs. Football alone does not have the power to overturn that. Yet as the World’s game, it has an obligation to stop being a barrier to progress and to start being an aid.
Every journey, it is said, starts with a single step.