Women’s football needs a Kerry Packer. Unfortunately it won’t get one 

With women’s football it sometimes seems like a case of one step forward then one step back. Two months after a fantastic EURO 2017 two of the four Semi Finalists, England and Denmark are in turmoil. Both are involved in dreadful situations and neither countries FA comes out of it with credit. 

First England. Since EURO 2017 the English FA has been involved in a racism scandal. It started with dropped striker Eni Aluko accusing manager Mark Sampson of making racist comments to her. Two independent enquiries cleared Sampson yet Aluko was offered £80000 “hush money” to cover up the allegations.

Then last month the story got worse when another player – Chelsea’s mixed race Drew Spence – accused Sampson of racism – saying he had asked her how many times she had been arrested. Another enquiry was announced but in a bizzare twist Sampson got sacked for an unrelated story – that he behaved inappropriately with young players at his former club Bristol Academy. The ridiculous thing being that the FA had the report into Sampson’s conduct at Bristol Academy two years ago but they did not read it until someone encouraged the FA to do so. Why Sampson wasn’t fully investigated either when he was appointed in 2013 or when the report into his conduct at Bristol appeared two years ago only the FA will know. 

And then last week the affair got even worse when the FA revealed that Sampson had been found guilty of racist remarks to Aluko and Spence. Aluko was totally vindicated and FA Chairman Greg Clarke and Chief Executive Martin Glenn totally humiliated. Both men squirmed through an embarrassingly inept performance in front of the All Party Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee last Wednesday with Clarke claiming allegations of institutional racism at the FA were “fluff”. NOT the FA’s finest hour (to put it mildly). MPs – notably Ian Lucas and Jo Stevens – were not impressed and could you blame them? The FA came across as racist, sexist and determined to protect Sampson at all costs – not a good look. 

But the FA are not the only FA that is not having a good time with its women’s team. EURO 2017 finalists Denmark are also in turmoil. Their World Cup qualifer against Sweden on Friday was cancelled when the players boycotted the game and the second best team in Europe are in danger of being kicked out of the World Cup by FIFA. How did this happen? 

The problem in Denmark is more common in the women’s game than the racism in England – namely pay. The Danish FA and the players have been negotiating since November but with no success. A EURO 2017 Final rematch with Holland last month was cancelled but a temporary agreement allowed their first World Cup qualifer in Hungary to be played (and won 6-1). But negotiations broke down yet again and the game against Sweden was cancelled. Another temporary agreement has allowed tomorrow’s qualifer in Croatia to go ahead but Denmark are at the mercy of UEFA and FIFA. Sweden’s players (to their credit) want the game to be rearranged but shamefully the Swedish FA want to take the forfeit victory.

Denmark is not the first case of a women’s national football team being in dispute with its FA over pay and/or conditions. Australia, the US. Argentina, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland are other countries where this has happened. But none of them reached the stage of the team being in danger of being thrown out of the World Cup. But it is clear that women footballers more and more are getting fed up with low or non existent pay and poor or non existent facilities. The problem for the women players is that there is nowhere for them to go but competitions ran by UEFA and FIFA who have a monopoly on football. There is no alternative for them than to try and pressure sexist, intransigent FAs to change. 

Women’s football in 2017 increasingly reminds me of professional cricket in 1977. Again the players were in dispute with the authorities over pay and conditions. For example Dennis Lillee then the best fast bowler in the world earned more money from his window cleaning business than from playing cricket despite the Australian Cricket Board making hundreds of thousands of dollars in gate receipts from the team’s matches. 

The difference here is that the Australian (and world) cricketers had somewhere else to go. A rich entrapenuer Kerry Packer had fallen out with the Australian Cricket Board for totally different reasons (he wanted exclusive Test rights for his TV station Channel 9 which the board wouldn’t grant). He had the idea to stage his own Test matches and the money to lure discontented cricketers to play in his games. To cut a very long story short (I’ll be writing about the Packer Affair soon) the Australian Cricket Board without the country’s best players ended up drowning in red ink and had to capitulate both to Packer – giving him the TV rights he wanted – and to the Australian players – giving them the higher pay they wanted. Other cricket countries learning the lesson had to increase the pay of their players to protect against another Packer.

Women’s football could really do with its own Kerry Packer to give the players another option and drive pay up. The difference here is that there isn’t a Packer lurking in the background nor will they ever be. Because of ingrained sexism it is highly unlikely that an entrapenuer will be unhappy that his TV station is not covering women’s football and thus be willing to combine with the discontented female players to set up an alternative tournament like Packer did in cricket (nor tolerate the start up losses that Packer did because he knew he would – and did – make money long term). 

The fact is as Jean Williams has pointed out in her books “A Game For Rough Girls” and “A Beautiful Game” is that FIFA, UEFA and most national FAs do not care about women’s football and only run it to maintain their monopoly over the game. They will pay the women as little as they can get away with – just like the Australian Cricket Board in the 1970s. 

The courage of Eni Aluko, Pernille Harder and the rest of the Danish women’s team is admirable and change is happening and will continue to happen. But to speed it up women’s football really needs its own Kerry Packer to break the FIFA monopoly pay women players what they are worth and force the FAs to do likewise to get the players back. But since the media, TV and big business are as sexist towards women’s football as the football establishment women’s football won’t get its Kerry Packer. Which means that the progress towards fair treatment of female footballers will be a lot slower than it should be…

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