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Women’s football’s long-term relationship with Toxic Positivity

Why criticism remains so rare in the woso sphere

FBL-WC-2019-WOMEN-BENFICA Photo credit should read PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP via Getty Images

As the women’s game grows around the world and professionalism moves from fiction to fact, we remain reticent to criticise the game. While it’s true that women’s football is a friendlier place, the “woso bubble” one also tends to be a welcoming one to newbies, but that enclosed space is also a sign of stunted growth.

Negativity

You don’t have to go far in the women’s game to find negativity from outside, you might have never been near a pitch that women were playing on but if you’ve seen any article published about the sport online, it’s likely you’ve seen malevolence in the comments. Maybe you’ve told people in your own personal circle that you’re involved in one way or another in the women’s game, only to be told that it’s “just women’s football.” Not even, “women’s football” but just women’s football; a lesser product not to be confused with the real thing.

You don’t even have to go far in coaching or journalistic circles to find women’s football being sold as a steppingstone. Men’s football is a heaving beast of a gargantuan entity, breaking into it is no easy task, but hey kid, do girls football first - it’s a piece of cake - and then you can graduate onto the real thing.

Is it any wonder that will all this crap we see on a daily basis that we’re reticent to criticise the game we love? With the sport getting so much hate from outside, why on earth would we want to add to it, we’re supposed to support it!

As defensive as fans tend to be about their favourite teams or players, it’s tenfold in women’s football, it’s almost like it’s our duty to protect it. However, it’s not just the fans but the journalists who too, routinely use the kid gloves when they report on the game. Positives are spun out after poor performances and accountability is left behind in the hurry to lift the product up.

As previously stated, women’s football exists in a neat little bubble, for so long it toiled in the amateur, watched by a handful of spectators and reported on by one or two who became so well known to the players. There remains a hangover from that time, and some (not all) remain uncomfortable when it comes to pointing out the errors made by those they consider to be friends. For those who get paid to report on the game, ruffling the feathers of not just players and coaches, but press officers, by writing something negative is too dangerous – revoked access is a death sentence for a career.

Watered down

We have seen, all too often, in the men’s game, just how easy it is to accumulate clicks by writing takedowns and negative articles, so we oft assume negativity is just there for sensationalism. We’re used to criticism coming from a place of malignancy, so when we see it, the assumption is it’s just there for interactions: to get a rise, and those who do complain, clearly don’t care about the game.

Sometimes this leads to overhyping the sport, every goal that’s good – not amazing, just good – gets sold as a “worldie”. Goals are clipped and posted online with the rocket emoji regardless of how hard they were struck or where they crossed the goal line. Commentators will yell down broadcasts about the world class saves being made when they’re no more than what you’d expect to see from any goalkeeper worth their salt.

In our frenzy to elevate the game, we’re doing it a great disservice. We watch through rose-tinted lenses and we end up encouraging everyone else to perch glasses on their noses before viewing what we’re selling.

It’s not just women’s football, it’s football plain and simple.

It doesn’t matter if it’s men or women or both playing, we will always talk about nutmegs in terms of being career-ending and we will always know something or someone world class when we see it/them.

Sinister

The culture of toxic positivity has far deeper consequences than just accepting a certain level of footballing development for players and coaches, but ripples through to all reaches of the game. For anyone who’s a fan of the sport, they know things are far from perfect in the world of women’s football, even in countries of high investment – like the USA and England. Professionalism is still for the 1%, and from semi-pro down to grassroots – and not least pathways into the sport, especially for those from minority backgrounds – across the world remain in need of serious care and focused investment.

Ferroviaria v America - Copa CONMEBOL Libertadores Femenina 2020 Photo by Juan Ignacio Roncoroni - Pool/Getty Images

If we devote all of our efforts to shouting the roof down about how great women’s football is – and run the risk of condescension in our framing – then we give ourselves other battles to fight when it comes to improving standards. So much of the sport exists in the part-time and amateur, those who care about the game, care for it, investing their own time and money to help it flourish. We have to accept that things are far from perfect, we have to allow ourselves to accept the flaws and be negative so we can so we can help it grow.

The more we turn our backs to the day-to-day struggles most in the sport go through, the easier it is for the far darker issues to get swept under the carpet. So, whilst reports of sexual assault at football federations such as Afghanistan, Argentina and Haiti (to name but three) is a world away from players spending a year on the sidelines before they can even have ACL surgery, or inept referees, it is all part of the struggle.

Of course, saying that a player or two had a bad game on the weekend isn’t even in the same postcode as the disgusting abuses of power we’ve seen reported in recent years, but it’s all part of this game. To cultivate women’s football, to keep pushing it up around the world, we have to acknowledge all parts of it and accept that for all the beauty, there are depths of ugliness too. We can change it for the better but we can’t be afraid to be honest.