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More women play football in the Americas. But Europe is growing fast

Team Spain celebrates with the trophy after winning the Women's World Cup soccer final against England at Stadium Australia in Sydney, Australia, Aug. 20, 2023.
Team Spain celebrates with the trophy after winning the Women's World Cup soccer final against England at Stadium Australia in Sydney, Australia, Aug. 20, 2023. Copyright AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino
Copyright AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino
By Graham Keeley
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Women's football is gaining traction across Europe and the latest World Cup, despite the controversy overshadowing Spain's win, should see the beautiful games gain more devotees.

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When Dolors Ribalta Alcalde was young, she could only play the beautiful game in the street because girls were not allowed to play in football clubs.

Slowly, things began to change but for decades, Spanish women players and referees have had to put up with sexist chants like ‘get back in the kitchen’.

The scandal over how Spanish football federation (RFEF) president Luis Rubiales kissed Spain player Jennifer Hermoso on the lips after Spain won the World Cup has highlighted a problem of macho behaviour which has plagued the women’s game for decades.

Despite this, it has not stopped women's football from becoming more accepted by Spanish society as misogynistic attitudes against women die out.

The victory of La Roja over England in Sydney will only help raise the visibility of the sport, say experts, and inspire a new generation of younger players to come through.

100,000 women in girls

Spain ranks among the top European nations in the women’s game.

There are almost 100,000 women and girls registered as players by the RFEF, a 55% rise since 2014, according to La Liga Feminina.

Around the world, Mexico has the largest number of women who play football where 22% say they kick a ball about, followed by Brazil with 17%, then Britain and United States (10%), Spain and France (8%), Germany (7%) and Italy (5%), according to a survey by researchers Statista carried out between April-June.

The United States leads the world, with more women playing ‘soccer’ there than men. The national women’s team has won the World Cup four times, while Germany won the title twice. Norway, Japan and now Spain have also claimed the globe's top football honour once.

In Britain, women’s football has boomed in recent years and England were the firm favourites to win the 2023 World Cup – until they were beaten by Spain 1-0 on August 20.

In terms of pay, women around the world still lag way behind men.

Prize money for the women’s World Cup tournament has nearly quadrupled since 2019 but this year women will cumulatively receive €385 million less than the men did at the 2022 World Cup, according to analysis by CNN.

Last season in Spain, a professional league was formed and players are paid between €50-60,000 per year, while the top stars can command salaries of about €90,000, Maria Rodrigo of La Liga Feminina told Euronews.

The financial rewards for female professionals are miniscule compared with the payday for the biggest male stars like Lionel Messi, the Argentina and Inter Miami striker.

'Conditions have improved'

Spanish women were only allowed to legally play football in 1971, in the dying days of the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.

“When I was a girl, people who played football were seen as strange. If you wanted to play with the boys’ teams, people did not know what had entered your head,” says Ribalta Alcalde, who played for RCD Espanyol, a second-division side in Spain and who is an expert on women’s football at the University of Ramón Llull in Barcelona.

“Until now, girls never had references of famous players. When I was growing up, girls who played football were exceptions. (The World Cup) is a great change.”

In the 1970s, the first Spanish women’s teams started to appear then in 1980, women’s football became an official sport permitted by the Spanish Football Federation. Three years later, there was the first Spain national team.

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“Women’s football has advanced because of various reasons. Social changes in which fathers and mothers thought it was good that their daughters would play. And football was seen as something totally valid for women,” she believes.

“Secondly, conditions have improved for players so that women and girls can train to play football in a better way. There is a professional league now. Winning (the World Cup) is not something that has happened because of magic. It is the fruit of many years of change."

'A very important turning point'

Emily Dolan, a goalkeeper for RCD Espanyol, grew up in the United States where football for women was encouraged.

“In the United States, there was a large period of time when soccer was the biggest sport for female athletes. Girls started to play soccer from a very young age. The funding for women’s soccer has been out front. They really trailblazed for a lot of other federations,” she told Euronews.

“On a social level for me, American football was never an option for me as a young girl. There was a bit of a trend when soccer hit the US. It really started at a grassroots level. Culturally, there have always been a lot of women who have always been vocal in giving women’s sport support, especially when the 99ers won the World Cup.”

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The United States won the 1999 World Cup and their team was known as the 99ers.

Ms Dolan, 29, who has played in Spain for six seasons, said she had experienced sexist incidents in both Spain and the United States.

“There have been cases of sexual assault in the United States. I think what is happening in Spain is a very important turning point. It is a shame because it should be one of the most important moments of the players' lives but (the problem) is not only isolated to Spain,” she said.

“The majority of women footballers have all experienced something of one degree or another. I applaud Jenni Hermoso and the other players because it is the only way we are going to progress as a sport and as a society.”

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