Paris: At last, there was a buzz. In the historic city centre of Valenciennes, once part of France’s industrial heartland but along with Lens and Lille in a decades-long decline, Matildas fans strolled through the narrow streets with locals looking on curiously. The FIFA circus was rolling into town. The supporters had flown in from across Australia to support their team, led by newly appointed coach Ante Milicic.
Keith Markham travelled all the way from Sydney for the Matildas’ three group games, spending roughly $17,000 - but with good reason: he is the grandfather of Australian midfielder Amy Harrison. “It is difficult to describe, very touching,” said Markham. “An awesome feeling [to see your granddaughter at the World Cup]. It’s incredible what you feel inside of you. She started out at the age of six, seven, played in the local league and up to the district league, then Sydney FC.”
In the stands of the new-age Stade de Hainaut, the green and gold army seemed to outnumber Italy’s fans. With 15,380 fans in attendance, 1,256 supporters were identifiable as Australian and 850 as Italian. Tricolored flags in every nook and corner of the stadium revealed more Italian fans had sneaked in. “It is building, it is getting bigger and better,” said Markham about the popularity of women’s football back home. “This, the World Cup is its pulling point.”
Markham left the game disappointed. The Matildas hardly lived up to their 'outsiders' tag. In the second half, talisman Sam Kerr faded and Juventus’ Barbara Bonansea punished the blunt Australians in the last moments of the game with a winning header at the far post.
But the Australians’ importance to the game goes well beyond this defeat. Since their quarter-final exit against Japan at the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada, the Matildas’ journey has been eventful with a historic pay-strike, a fractious two-year back-and-forth with their own football federation and a collective bargaining agreement. They have been at the forefront of the equal pay fight. This World Cup has been mired in issues of gender equality and the growth of the women’s game, but the tournament could be a catalyst and seminal moment in the sports’ development.
“To get equal pay you have to attract the audience,” said Ray Browning from Queensland, who had been holidaying in Portugal before he decided to fly to France to watch his first Matildas match live. “In tennis I wonder - if there would be separate women’s tournaments would they draw the equal crowds and equal sponsorship? If so, then equal pay. It is a commercial decision, right? You can’t pay women’s players $15 million dollars or so like Lionel Messi. It is so difficult to do from an economic point of view, but the game and the way the women play is a very attractive proposition.”
It is a supply-and-demand view shared by Scotland fan Jim Hart. He was at Euro 2017 when Scotland were crushed 6-0 by England. In Nice, the 2-1 defeat was a valiant return for Scotland to any World Cup football after 21 years. “The standard of play is exceptionally high with a lot of creative moves, both personal skills and practiced,” said Hart. “The gap should be closer, but equality will come when the income from sponsors, media and spectators improves.”
Scotland will play their last group game against Argentina in Paris. Before the competition’s curtain raiser the French capital had absorbed the hype the Women’s World Cup and its blanket media coverage had generated. Parisians were talking about Roland Garros and Rafael Nadal’s quest for a 12th French Open title or, one imagines, the Wiener Philharmoniker playing at the Champs-Élysées Theatre, not women’s football.
“The two views are understandable,” says Melissa Ortiz, a former Colombia player, who witnessed the hosts’ 4-0 opening match victory against South Korea. “Some people are set on the revenue and the income that you return. However, pay should be equal, in particular in regards to national teams. You have very successful women’s national teams that outperform the men’s national teams, like the USA and Norway. If the federations were to invest more equally, you will get a better result in the long run.”
FIFA, a non-profit organisation with reserves of $2.7 billion, and its ‘acclaimed’ president Gianni Infantino have promised to underwrite the women’s game with $500 million in the next four years. “FIFA not using that money to promote the women’s game would be a crying shame, a dreadful situation,” said Browning. In 2018, football's world governing body spent $16 million on its own congress in Moscow according to Brazilian outlet UOL, more than the prize pot of the last Women’s World Cup and about half of the prize money in France.
“The pay gap is abnormal,” said Lea Wioland, 23, from the Alsace where she plays as a midfielder for a Strasbourg club. “The men earn too much money, €400,000 a week. That’s exaggerated. We must reduce men's pay and increase it a little for the women. Women’s football is skillful and more sincere. I have seen three Champions League games of Lyon. We didn’t see a lot of goals, but you notice the level improves each and every time.”
Wioland, with tricolor face paint on her cheeks and a ticket for the final in hand, hopes the women will emulate Didier Deschamps’ outfit. In a bubbly atmosphere at the Parc des Princes against South Korea, they took the first step. The question was never if France were going to win, but by how many? The victory arrived 328 days after the French men’s team had lifted the World Cup in Moscow. If they complete the journey, the demand for equal pay will be more difficult than ever to sidestep.
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Updated Date: Jun 10, 2019 12:15:38 IST