Brieanna Charlebois: World Cup gender divide shrinking

How hosting the 2026 Men's World Cup will be different than hosting the 2015 Women's World Cup

It was Canada Day but I sat in the stands in Salvador, Brazil surrounded by a sea of red, white and blue. Resounding chants of, “USA, USA” and “Your waffles are good, your team isn’t” rang around the arena — most coming from the “American Outlaw” section as they cheered on U.S. men’s soccer team against Belgium. The year was 2014 and I was in the second year of my undergraduate degree when I somehow found myself covering the World Cup in Brazil.

At the time, I was studying at Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University and, being Canadian, I was there on a soccer scholarship. It was only because Scripps has a reputation for being one of the best journalism schools in the country that I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to attend the 2014 World Cup in Brazil alongside the U.S. Soccer Federation.

When I told my family, friends and teammates this news, they looked at me like I won the lottery. School articles were written and friends posted on social media. Suddenly, people I barely knew came up to me in bars or on the street to ask what I’d be doing and which international athletes I’d get to see play and interview. Admittedly, I was excited.

Stationed in Sao Paulo, I was there for the opening ceremonies. I was also there when the U.S. survived the Group of death making it to the round of 16 where they ultimately lost to Belgium. I was able to sit in meetings and press conferences with world-class athletes and some of my own personal heroes. It’s hard for me to believe that four years have gone by since then but with the 2018 FIFA World Cup opening ceremony beginning Thursday with the first game (Russia vs Saudi Arabia) kicking off shortly after, it’s hard to stay in denial.

Another interesting development in the international soccer world came Wednesday with the announcement that Canada, the U.S. and Mexico won the bid to co-host the 2026 FIFA World Cup. This will mark the first time that men’s World Cup matches will be played in Canada.

Traditionally, host nations have received an automatic spot in the tournament but this may not be true for Canada. The 2026 games will be the biggest World Cup ever held with 48 teams set to compete — this year’s World Cup in Russia has 32. The so-called “United” bid calls for 80 matches to be spread across the three host nations. This has never happened before, meaning there are a lot of unanswered questions. Final decisions will be made by the FIFA council and may not come for a couple of years, likely after the qualifying format for the new 48-team field is finalized — though this expansion probably helps Canada’s chances of getting a spot. The last (and only) time that Canada’s men’s team appeared in the FIFA world cup was in 1986. Still, Canadians remain hopeful.

But, B.C. won’t be one of the provinces taking part because the NDP government decided not to support Vancouver’s efforts to be part of the bid involving cities across Canada, U.S. and Mexico, citing cost concerns.

With developments dominating the media, I began reflecting on my own experiences — both as a journalist who attended the last Men’s World Cup but also as an athlete — or rather, a female athlete. Though covering Brazil was one of the most incredible experiences of my professional and personal life, I couldn’t help but notice the differences in the collective morale of Canadians the following year when we hosted the 2015 Women’s World Cup.

Why is it that the women are internationally “better” at soccer in North America but are often paid less and seemingly aren’t as well respected as the men? North American women’s teams have some of the biggest names in soccer in the world: Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair. Many of whom have made headlines in recent years by advocating for women athletes by arguing against the disparity between men and women in sport — particularly in pay scale. Some have even gone so far as to argue that women’s soccer is a feminist issue.

In October 2014, the biggest stars in women’s soccer did something unprecedented: They sued. This group of trailblazers included Wambach (U.S.), Marta Vieira da Silva (Brazil) and Nadine Angerer (Germany) who filed a gender-discrimination lawsuit against the Canadian Soccer Association and FIFA about the 2015 World Cup being played on artificial turf instead of natural grass. All six women’s World Cups prior — and all 20 men’s World Cups — had been played on grass because it’s considered a superior playing surface. The lawsuit was eventually dropped because organizers suggested they wouldn’t comply with court rulings and because the players needed to know which surface would be used so they could properly train beforehand.

In the years that followed, the U.S. women’s team made major headlines again when they demanded equal pay to the men. They argued that they had won more championships and were paid less for winning than their male counterparts got for stepping on the pitch. Getting to the round of 16 in Brazil was considered a major feat for the men. The U.S. women have won three World Cup titles.

In a 2017 article by The Guardian, Alex Morgan went on record to call out FIFA regarding women’s equality. She was quoted saying, “If FIFA starts respecting the women’s game more, others will follow.”

She has a point.

25.4 million. That’s the number of people who watched the 2015 World Cup Final (U.S. vs Japan), making it the most watched soccer match — male or female — in the history of the U.S. There are also the smaller numbers. The women received $10 less per day than men for their meal allowances on the road. An importance to note but hard to compare to Canada’s teams since the men aren’t really considered a contender on the global stage — though, the U.S. men also didn’t make the tournament this year.

Interestingly, I am also often asked the question: “Why are the women so good at soccer in North America in comparison to the men?” For me, the answer seems obvious. Soccer — or football as it’s more commonly known around the world — is the world’s most popular sport. I’d argue that it all boils down to culture. Internationally, North American men’s teams tend to be “worse” because the sport isn’t ingrained into our culture the same way as it is in most countries around the world. Canadian (and U.S.) athletics are saturated. We have hockey and lacrosse and basketball and baseball and tennis.. the list goes on. But, internationally, soccer is king. It’s played by everyone — from those living in the richest neighbourhoods to the those living in slums. It unites people. In Brazil, the entire country would stop to watch the game. Stores closed and not one person could be found on the street. I was based in Sao Paulo — one of the biggest cities in the world. It became a ghost town whenever a game was being played.

It’s a religion. Here, it’s a past time.

Internationally, women playing sports is still generally a new idea. Gender norms are more culturally enforced. This means they haven’t yet evolved in the same way. Feminist movements likely play a role. In North America, women playing sports has become a cultural norm — one that I’m personally grateful for. I’m not delusional in the fact that Title IX, the federal civil rights law in the United States of America that was passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972, was likely a contributing factor in having the opportunity to become a student-athlete. One section of this law, Title IX, prohibits discrimination against girls and women in federally-funded education, including in athletics programs.

I was an athlete, a soccer player who has since retired. And, at one point, I saw it as my identity. This identity was reinforced when I was able to attend the men’s World Cup as a young journalist and then watch as Canada, my home country, as we hosted the 2015 Women’s World Cup.

The national hype that stemmed from the news of Canada being one of the host countries for 2026, meaning the men may get handed a spot to play, only reaffirms this notion that soccer, in many ways, is a feminist issue. We’ve come a long way and the success of women’s soccer — both in Canada and the U.S. national teams — affirm that. But, we’re not there yet.

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