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She’s such a role model: one big thing that should change in the new decade

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“Role models” is a term we hope is applied more thoughtfully in the years to come.

United States of America v Netherlands : Final - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

You must have seen the tweets: “this is the reason we do it” and “this is what it’s all about.” Players and teams are encouraged to inspire, to get out there and show young girls they too can be footballers – a nice sentiment, but surely one that should be a by-product rather than the primary objective? Women are held to such a standard trying to break out of the wives and mothers bracket that the scrutiny and vitriol are almost unbearable. Women in the public eye or in upper management know they have to be faultless because every error, every flaw will be magnified, and it’s grossly unfair to say they have to be inspirations, that they have to be faultless, when they should just be allowed to be.

The trailblazer

Men’s football, particularly in Europe, isn’t a wonderful place for women to be, especially not for those in the public eye. But even in women’s football, the women within it can’t just exist. For women who play football, there is almost a clause in the contract they sign; if they wish to play, first and foremost they have to be role models.

It’s not even that they’re in the public eye and their behaviour is highly imitable; even those further down the rungs seem to exist only to inspire the next generation – who in turn, one would assume, will be there to inspire the next and so on. Yet ritz and glamour in women’s football are reserved for the 1%, the narrow few who play at the biggest clubs and earn a respectable wage. The vast majority of women the world over still find themselves paying to play. Even those who can call themselves “semi-professional” are forced to juggle football and a second job. Those who have the chance to devote themselves 100% to football? They still study, still set up a retirement plan, still look to their lives after football, to what will happen in their thirties and beyond. And they all have to be inspirational.

Inspiring a nation

Even in the media we walk the tightrope. Journalists will talk to national team coaches after a major tournament and speak of the success of “inspiring a nation.” No team can ever be sad after a World Cup knockout because they’ve inspired the next generation. The 23 in the squad, the young and the old, were tasked with changing attitudes, forcing people to confront their sexism and misogynistic views, pleading with a country to give the women’s game a chance. After Scotland went out last in Group D at the 2019 World Cup, the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, fell back on the repeated trope, claiming that “most important of all,” the team inspired the nation.

The dream for most players isn’t about making large sums of money. It’s not even about silverware and success. Some just want to the chance to play and be recognised as footballers, while others want to be the best footballers they can be. For many, the dream is about representing their national teams, wearing the colours of their country, feeling the heavy badge on their chests as they sing their national anthem at a major tournament - it surely doesn’t get much better. But it gets lost in the role model morass. The primary goal of a World Cup is no longer progression, or even the good old “doing your country proud,” it’s about being 23 role models who don’t just have the weight of a nation on their shoulders, but an entire gender.

From North London to İstanbul

When Jeremy Corbyn tweeted a congratulatory message to the Arsenal women’s team after they won the WSL title last season, he dropped the i-bomb. As an Arsenal fan, it wasn’t so strange to see the leader of the Labour party tweet about the Gunners winning some silverware, but had it been the men’s team winning instead (yes, we’re deep into hypothetical territory here), it’s unlikely Unai Emery’s charges would be referred to as inspirational.

Arsenal unquestionably had their fair share of hurdles last season and there was a clear amount of defying the odds as they rounded the bend into the home straight but can’t they just be kickass instead of flag-bearers encouraged to show the next generation that they too can play?

Even female referees aren’t immune. When French referee Stéphanie Frappart was appointed as the official for the UEFA [men’s] Super Cup, UEFA’s chief refereeing officer Roberto Rosetti said, “I hope she will inspire thousands of female referees.” Frappart broke new ground as the first woman to officiate a major men’s final, but of course, as well as having to keep her calm and make sure to get every decision right over 90 minutes, the 35-year-old had to inspire too.

Cast your mind back and ask yourself when was the last time you remember a male referee being tasked with being an inspiration. Even Pierluigi Collina got away without having to be one to inspire thousands. So why does Frappart have to inspire her entire gender - why can she not just do her job?

The arrogant and the politically correct

Personal opinion here: Zlatan Ibrahimović is an insufferable individual. His arrogance is revolting, and yet his levels of self-conceit endear him to many around the men’s football community, which is why he was held up as the men’s example to counterbalance Megan Rapinoe last summer. Rapinoe got labeled with the arrogant moniker for her swagger and pride from winning World Cup knockouts, despite the backlash she was receiving from certain audiences in the USA. It’s easy enough to search for her name on Twitter and find a slew of misogynistic and homophobic rabble. Rapinoe broke the cardinal rule of her sex and opened her mouth. Yet where she spoke in support of political and social progress, Zlatan spoke about Zlatan, making the comparison of the two somewhat lacking. If Rapinoe cannot be proud and outspoken as an international champion, can women ever be?

The Americans were unapologetic World Cup winners. They had no reason to be; as back-to-back world champions, they had earned the right to celebrate. And celebrate they did, all 23 players gently marinating their livers in whatever beer and liquor they could find - and it was refreshingly empowering to witness. But the lines were clearly drawn. Many were in the “You get it, queens!” camp but those who weren’t were fiercely of the belief that the USWNT were acting disgracefully.

The world doesn’t like women to be loud and proud - especially not if they’re asking for equal pay. But just going back to something as simple as a woman showing up and doing her job, let’s take Eni Aluko at the 2018 World Cup and the bizarre way that Patrice Evra applauded her. Aluko had done her homework, showed up to her job and...well, that was evidently far more than Evra had even contemplated, his patronising clapping an enduring memory from a long summer.

Just like Aluko, Alex Scott had a prominent role on British television over the men’s World Cup last summer as part of her transition into punditry. Scott is knowledgeable, confident and one of the most decorated female footballers England’s ever had but she knows she’s under the microscope. Whereas male pundits can phone it in (and unfortunately, so many do), Scott has to have everything on point, not just as a woman but a woman of colour. She has to do her job and then some because she’s a trailblazer. One dreads to think of the state of her Twitter mentions. The torrent of social media hate mail is something Australian host Lucy Zelić knows well too; the Australian host was almost pushed to breaking point a few years ago. Although, for her role during the 2018 World Cup, at least Scott wasn’t sexually assaulted live on air.

For women’s football, and women in football, visibility is key - as it is for any minority in the public eye. All it takes for young girls to realise they can be footballer is seeing women play football. Female footballers don’t have to be perfect, they don’t have to be role models with the weight of the expectation of the world on them, they just have to be seen. And in a world where women are forced to walk the tightrope, struggling for column space and visibility, but mindful of the abuse that could be thrown through their windows at any given moment, it’s not right to put extra pressure on them. After a decade of rapid change that has seen not just the sport’s biggest tournament but domestic leagues inflate to new heights, we can hope for this to change in the new decade as well.