‘There are still struggles’: Fixing the diversity gap in women’s football

As the Women’s World Cup draws to a close, some say a lack of diversity remains a significant problem for some European teams.

Berlin, Germany – As Douha Mzoughi, a 34-year-old goalkeeper for Tuerkiyemspor Berlin, mentions the Women’s World Cup, she grows animated, but her enthusiasm is bittersweet.

“This tournament has been like no other. We saw how major teams like Germany and France didn’t make it so far while smaller teams did really well. The tournament shows how far women’s football has come,” she told Al Jazeera on the training ground of her club, one of the largest migrant-founded sports clubs in Europe which includes a girls’ and women’s division of more than 400 players.

“But the German team was very white German, and I don’t know why. I know many girls with diverse backgrounds who are very good at football,” she adds, her slick-back ponytail swinging in the air as she heads back to the pitch.

There was only one Black woman – forward Nicole Anyomi – in the German team.

England, who play Spain in the final at Sydney’s Stadium Australia on Sunday, have just two women of colour in their 23-player squad.

The 2023 tournament, held across Australia and New Zealand, has sparked World Cup fever and has broken records for attendances, TV audiences and prize money. Smaller countries such as Jamaica, Nigeria, South Africa and Morocco have shocked some of the bigger teams.

Yet, amid the hype as the World Cup draws to a close, some observers say a lack of ethnic and religious diversity among the players and coaches of major European teams, as well as in the media, remains a significant problem.

“Women’s football is truly grabbing attention at the moment, and one of the things the World Cup has given us is some insight into the ways football lives and thrives in different parts of the world,” Shireen Ahmed, a senior journalist with Canadian broadcaster CBC as well as sports activist based in Toronto, told Al Jazeera on her return from covering the World Cup in Australia.

“At the same time as we celebrate this joy, the growth, the broadcast numbers, and all the small wins, we must take a moment to recognise there are still struggles; whether it is pay and equity disputes or exclusion from the game for certain communities. We need to keep advocating for those who don’t have the correct access or justice within the sport.”

England’s diversity challenges

Recent figures from the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), a trade union for footballers in England, show that just 9.7 percent of footballers in the elite women’s game are from diverse ethnic backgrounds, while 43 percent of male players in the Premier League are Black.

Ahmed says that gaps are still not being addressed on an institutional level.

“In order to include people from different racialised communities, you have to be very intentional in your approach to anti-racism – I don’t feel the Football Association [FA] is there yet,” she said. “And we are seeing it in the women’s game now where the journalists are predominantly white women. That’s not equality.”

With scouting academies primarily based out in the suburbs, it can be difficult for young girls from minority communities to travel if they live in the inner city.

The FA pointed Al Jazeera to a number of initiatives it has recently launched to make women’s football more inclusive and accessible, including the establishment of 70 Emerging Talent Centres (ETCs) which will allow the majority of young players to access an ETC within one hour of where they live by next year.

An FA spokesperson said progress was being made, “however, these are long-term challenges, and they require all of football’s stakeholders to play their part if we are to drive lasting change”.

On the ground, much of the push for equality is coming from groups such as social inclusion NGO Football Without Borders and the Muslimah Sports Association (MSA), whose founder and chairperson Yashmin Harun has been advocating for more than a decade to increase access for marginalised and underrepresented groups in Redbridge, east London.

Founded in 2014, a partnership with the local Frenford Clubs followed and the team is now called Frenford & MSA WFC, with three teams now in a five-a-side league.

Harun told Al Jazeera there has been a massive uptick in the grassroots of girls from diverse backgrounds between the ages of five and above 18 getting into football following the Lionesses’ historic Euros win last year.

“We struggled at the beginning to get girls involved, now we are seeing 100 or so women and girls at our weekly training sessions,” Harun said.

Caption - The Redbridge-based MSA has seen a huge uptick in interest from women and girls from different backgrounds in football following England's European cup win last year.
MSA has seen a huge uptick in interest from women and girls from different backgrounds in football following England’s Euros win last year [Courtesy of Garry Strutt]

Harun says the MSA has responded to this growing interest by coaching, mentoring and raising awareness in places like mosques and schools and there has been more support from the FA amid these efforts.

“We reflect the community that we serve and we have had to work really hard to address some of the anxiety issues people might have about joining. We have been good in terms of trying to raise awareness about lack of diversity, and in talking about how we get more players and coaches into the game,” she said.

“So there is more conversation happening but I think people are expecting things to happen a little bit faster.”

‘Completely hypocritical’

A lack of diversity is also a problem elsewhere in Europe, although it can take a different form.

While at least 12 women in France’s squad trace their heritage to countries outside Europe, such as Algeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), they remain less diverse than the men’s squad.

Laurent Dubois, a professor at the University of Virginia and author of The Language of the Game: How to Understand Soccer, says the relatively high diversity can be attributed to socioeconomic conditions as well as significant state investment in sports infrastructure.

“The crucial interface between the economic marginalisation and poverty is concentrated in the suburbs, which makes sports in particular one kind of doorway to social mobility. It’s true for French women’s soccer, just maybe a little bit less so [than the men’s].”

However, a court ruling last month that upheld the French Federation’s Football (FFF) ban on women and girls wearing the hijab while playing sports, including football, was a huge blow to those pushing for a more diverse and inclusive footballing environment in the country.

The court said the FFF was allowed to ban headscarves to “guarantee the smooth running of matches and any clashes or confrontations”.

The legislation had been challenged in court by the French collective Les Hijabeusese. Founded in 2020, the group – some of whose members have had to stop playing competitive football – has been advocating for the rights of Muslim women to wear the hijab while playing the sport.

“The ruling is completely hypocritical,” says Veronica Noseda, a founding member of Les Degommeuses, a Paris-based volunteer-led LGBTQ football team set up more than a decade ago that supported Les Hijabeusese, who said the official justification hides Islamophobia and reflects the ongoing attempts of institutions to control women’s bodies.

Ahmed, who has also been a vocal supporter of the campaign, says the ban will have a huge effect on young women and girls going forward.

“Football can be a wonderful connector of people in different communities but with this expulsion of Black and brown women from some communities, we are not going to see that in France,” she said.

FIFA’s ban on head coverings was overturned in 2014, and Morocco’s Nouhaila Benzina became the first player to wear a hijab in a World Cup this year. The poignancy of the milestone was underlined further when Morocco faced France in the last 16.

Groups such as Les Degommeuses are raising awareness around discrimination in France as well as offering transport and material support to people from different ethnic, socioeconomic and diverse gender backgrounds to increase their access to the sport.

Noseda says it is at the intersections of race, class, religion, sexual orientation and gender where the group will continue to focus as more young women and girls in France develop an interest in the game.

“The question of the pitches and space to play is crucial right now because the spaces [for women] are smaller and generally occupied. For ages here in France, football was considered a very masculine sport and women were left aside from it, but things are changing, and we can really see it when we see little girls playing in the parks,” Noseda said.

“People from all backgrounds are keen to be football players now, we are really seeing a great evolution within the sport.”

Since its founding more than a decade ago, the LGBTQ football club Les Dégommeuses has been working on the ground to raise awareness about the discrimination impacting marginalized and unrepresented communities in football.
Les Degommeuses works to raise awareness about discrimination in football [Courtesy of Les Degommeuses]

In Germany, much of the push for diversity will come from groups on the ground. Tuerkiyemspor Berlin says it will continue its focus on fair pay and training conditions for women and girls, as well as outreach initiatives within socially disadvantaged communities.

There is also Discover Football, an international advocacy group based in Berlin that uses football to advocate for the rights of women and girls through network building between women’s football teams, projects and activists, as well as hosting events, such as the one this week that focuses on feminism and football.

Meanwhile, all eyes will be on the final on Sunday to see who will win the Women’s World Cup tournament for the first time – England or Spain.

Harun says the excitement is reaching fever pitch among the girls in her club.

“It’s just phenomenal. Regardless of the outcome on Sunday, we should be proud as a nation. The Lionesses will continue to inspire so many more women and girls to get into football – and that can only mean a good thing,” she said.

“It’s fundamental now to build upon that momentum to ensure those communities who may feel excluded are included in the future of football.”

Source: Al Jazeera