#ThoughtivityOpinion: On Female Football, Access and Marie Antoinette Katoto

I have been following the FIFA U20 Women’s World Cup going on in France since it started  a few weeks ago. Generally it has been what you would expect in female football, especially at age grade level. Slower pace, of games due to lack of strength and stamina, compared to men at that level? Check. A general lack of technical ability, with the resultant terrible finishing, general low quality set pieces, and the low quality mastery of basic skills like dribbling, shooting and passing? Check. Girls chanelling their inner Maria Sharapova and turning the games into 90 minutes screamfests? Check.

However, contrary to what the “female football is boring” crowd will tell us, surprisingly the tournament has witnessed some great games as well as some quality players. Even though as a Nigerian I have no dog in the fight anymore, since our Falconets have been knocked out, I can’t help but notice one or two striking players in the various teams. I have the one of the most striking I have found is Marie Antoinette Katoto, the captain of the French team. tall, dark, and slim with a stunning face and legs that seem go on forever. It was love at first sight. She didn’t do her looks any harm with her insouciant, languid grace that reminded me of Abou Diaby in an Arsenal shirt. It was not just looks she had going for her, she had the talent to match. Also with a first name like Marie Antoinette, needless to say I was already dreaming of the names we are going to give our three girls, before I realized that I was in fact ogling a nineteen year old girl off the TV. Also she is out there kicking ass with her youth, I am still an underpaid writer dreaming above my station.

But dark skinned leggy beauties aside, watching the tournament got me thinking of an argument I had with someone a few months ago. The person was going on about “those feminist women” who want equal treatment with men, yet do not contribute as much in terms of ability as men do. He proceeded to give me an example of a football match where his school’s senior female team was soundly trashed by an assortment of male junior students. His reasoning was that if a team of senior girls who had been together for about two or three years and was composed of some of the strongest and fittest Senior Secondary girls in the school could get trashed by a motley assortment of junior boys, why are females trying to prove they should that they can play football like men can?

Over the years of listening to men disparage not just female football, but female sports in general, most of them often trot the old argument about how women are generally physically weaker than men, have less ability and therefore generally put out lower quality performances. The logical conclusion of that argument is saying that attempts by sports bodies to give women a level playing field similar with men is only encouraging mediocrity in the sport. On the surface, the argument makes sense. It is unfair to the group that is bringing in the lion share of the money and sponsorships to have them share equally with the group that is not doing so well. However as with as the other arguments misogynists propose about female sports it falls apart once you examine it. I will explain why.

Imagine FIFA suddenly say “African teams will no longer be allowed to participate in the men’s World Cup. Because since 1938 when Africa was first represented at the competition, an African team is still yet to pass the quarter finals. Also the Africa is the only continent that didn’t produce a qualifying team for the Round of 16 this year. We don’t want this kind of mediocrity in the beautiful game.” Men (especially African men) would be up in arms to protest FIFA’s unfairness. To them, every country in the world should be given a fair chance to play at the World Cup, and nobody should be excluded, even if they just come around every time to make up the numbers. It is then baffling that they simply cannot extend that same logic to the fact that the beautiful game should be open to everyone regardless of gender or quality of football. When the then FIFA president Sepp Blatter declared that Africa would host the men’s World Cup in 2010, everyone hailed him as a hero, and no one in the “mediocrity should not be permitted” crowd complained that FIFA was simply leaning back to accommodate a continent that has contributed little or nothing to the World Cup. Even though the continent’s representatives still ended up being characteristically rubbish, with the amount of joy that was visible in not just South Africa, who hosted the tournament, but within the continent itself, no one could have any grudges against FIFA for the choice.

That reminds me of some of the other things I saw in the course of watching the U-20 women play, like how the girls displayed a kind of passion that is fast disappearing in the high stakes men’s game these days. Every single one of the girls played their hearts out, no superstar passengers ambling casually around the pitch, no players being knocked over by a stiff breeze and rolling on the ground like they have been shot, no cheating divers, no dark arts or time wasting, No crowding the referees like a bunch of crybabies. You got the feeling that these girls didn’t care whether there were cameras on them or not, they just wanted to get on the pitch and play football. Yet some sexist prick would argue that these people with so much love and passion for the game should not be given a level playing field.

That brings me to the other part of the argument, the point that “It is men like you who talk so vociferously about female football, women themselves don’t even show interest in it. So why should I fight a battle which the people who stand to benefit most from victory are sitting disinterested on the sidelines?” People who talk like this are like Nigerian parents who would tell you when you are going to University that “I am sending you to school to study and not to chase girls” and then wonder why there is no girlfriend appearing in all the pictures at your graduation. Everywhere in the world you see boys as young as three, boys who cannot run, or even talk coherently already running after a ball, if a girl showed an interest in football at that age, she would be told “Little girls play with dolls, they don’t run around playing football with rough boys.” Unfortunately football like any other interest operates on the “the younger the better” a ten year old who started playing football at four is a better footballer than a fifteen year old who started playing at nine. That was the flaw in my friend’s argument. Even though the senior girls were older and had access to better training, the boys had probably played more hours of football than the girls. It is the same reason Germany’s U-20s for will probably beat the national team of say Kosovo or Gibraltar. Because even though they are younger, they simply have played more games with better facilities. If you have spent decades telling someone not to do something, why are you surprised that it is taking them decades to be good at it?

It is important for us to realize that sports associations using the funds that the men’s teams bring in to create a parity with the female teams in terms is not socialism or throwing money at mediocrity, at least as FIFA allowing the Republic of South Africa to host the FIFA men’s World Cup despite Africa’s poor record at the tournament isn’t. It is a way of trying to redress an imbalance that the people running the male sport created and perpetuated for decades and which still exists today. For context, the Dutch football league might never be as good as the English Premier League, but with enough support, the Dutch still enjoy something close to the kind of football that the English enjoy. We can try and do the same for Women’s football in particular and sport in general. If not for anything else so that we can see more girls like Marie Antoinette Katoto, kicking ass in awesome ways.

Now if you will excuse me, this nineteen year old, tall, dark, slim, leggy French football team captain is not fantasize about herself.

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