HOUSTON – On the eve of the Women's World Cup it is worth remembering that FIFA's involvement in a women's football tournament won't turn the Sith Lords of soccer into benevolent stewards of the beautiful game.
Women are canaries in the coalmine. Look past the happy spectacle of athletes playing their best football, and you'll find some of the most appalling abuses of power in the sport.
Historian Jean Williams points out that UEFA and FIFA only got behind international women's football tournaments in the late 1980s, after they saw independent women-centered organizations making a go of such events; after they realized there was money to be made from women's interest in the game. They were afraid, in other words, that other organizations might get in on the women's market and monopolize it, as FIFA has done for men. (See chapter one of Williams's A Beautiful Game. )
When FIFA took on the women's game, it wanted nothing to do with the opinionated feminists who had sustained the game for decades in countries around the world, in which women's involvement in the sport had been banned (e.g. England and Brazil). Organizations like the Asian Ladies Football Confederation wanted, Williams explains, to be affiliated with FIFA as organizations in their own right.
FIFA might have empowered those kinds of networks as women's associations, with the authority to govern the women's game.
Instead, it required that women's football be organized through the existing men's FAs. This was fine and good where women were empowered within those structures (and they were, in a handful of countries). But globally, this has generally not been the case at all.
There are 126 teams ranked by FIFA, 16 of which are playing in Germany this summer. Most FAs treat the women's game as a charity, in which they throw odd scraps in the general direction of women, in substitution for a real commitment to the sport.
When FIFA sponsored its World Championship tournament, it forced independent, grassroots programs of men and women committed to the women's game into a subordinate relationship within football associations that were (and in some cases still are) run by men opposed to the idea of women playing the sport at all.
It authorized those men to hire coaching and administrative staff - and thus effectively disempowered and dismantled women's football programs all over the globe. From England to India, the 1980s and early 1990s saw a complicated unraveling of nascent women's scenes, as a generation of players and administrators were marginalized and eventually alienated from the sport.
Jeanne Williams reminds us that as recently as 1992 - not even 20 years ago - FIFA officials continued to publicly debate whether women could play a full 90 minutes, and considered using a different sized ball. There are many people in national football associations around the world that hold these attitudes about women - and worse. Blatter himself is clearly only half a step above the worst on this front. Many talented women athletes are repulsed by the idea of working with such people. (With so little money involved, why would you?)
Ever wonder why Caster Semenya doesn't play soccer, her first sport? Track and field is filled with women who'd love to play soccer for their country - but their national programs are so badly run, they know they'll never see the Olympics if they do. So they do other things, happily.
FIFA only started paying bonuses to players on winning women's World Cup teams in 2007 (!). As is the case in the men's game, there are few guarantees that players will be given the money they are owed. As recently as last month, Brazil had yet to pay the women's team the money it earned when it qualified for the tournament in Germany.
A few national football associations treat the women's team as a "bonus" assignment for friends who pocket the salary and do little or nothing. Some of these places have active regional leagues, but no national team record to boast about.
The worst-case scenarios in women's football are truly horrifying: some women players endure sexual abuse via their exposure to the shady characters working in their national football associations.
That was the case in South Africa. Months after the 2010 World Cup, a handful of women players came forward and finally forced SAFA to remove a man from the coaching staff who'd been molesting the team's players. This abuse had been going on for years.
FIFA has no mechanism for addressing the sexual abuse of players on national squads. There is not one word in its charter that acknowledges that this happens - and it does. Indeed, as far as I can see FIFA has little mechanism for addressing sexism or homophobia within any level of its organization. (I would love to be proven wrong on this.)
The woman now coaching the Nigerian squad gave a speech at a women's football conference this year, and alerted the world to the "problem" of lesbianism in football. The implications of Eucharia Uche's homophobic statement - really, a declaration of policy ("No lesbianism in the Super Falcons camp!") - have been completely ignored in what limited coverage the press has offered of the Women's World Cup.
Does FIFA organize a campaign to raise awareness of the fact that women at the highest level of every dimension of the game are gay - players, coaches, adminstirators - not to mention fans? Does FIFA celebrate the fact that unlike the men's game, the women's game is not closeted? No - because FIFA does all the closeting for us by maintaining an aggressive silence on this fact. And the media collaborates, as it steps gently around this completely obvious fact.
Since I started paying attention to these questions, I've found it increasingly hard to get excited by the tournament for functions in the media as FIFA's alibi, papering over very real and hard problem of an organization that sees women as a kind of burden, if not a subspecies.
For the record, I'm rooting for Brazil.
Dr. Jennifer Doyle is an Associate Professor in the English Department at the University of California, Riverside, where her research areas include American Literature, Visual Culture, Gender Studies and Critical Theory. Dr. Doyle maintains From a Left Wing , a blog devoted to the cultural politics of soccer. She will be contributing to FOX Soccer throughout the 2011 Women's World Cup.