Women's football during COVID-19
(Julia Rendleman for The New York Times)

How COVID-19 has affected women’s football across the globe?

The growth of women’s football over the past couple of years has been nothing short of extraordinary. It seems that investors have finally caught on that there is a genuine interest in the women’s game, which has caused a massive investment increase in the game, from the grassroots level up to the professional leagues. 

However, if the pandemic has proved anything when it comes to the women’s game, it’s that the system is still quite fragile and still has ways to go to become as established as the men’s game. 

FIFPro, the only worldwide professional football organization for professional players, conducted a series of surveys in November of 2020 that showcased the impact of COVID-19 on women’s football across the world. The surveys showcased that “[r]educed salaries, shortened contracts, poor communication, and more, are compounding the already precarious football careers of many female players worldwide,” which in turn has left women footballer’s means of support, as well as their physical and mental health in jeopardy. Sixty-two countries took part in the survey, with football associations from every continent being represented. 

One of the first things the pandemic revealed is the lack of professional status in the women’s game. Before the pandemic, it was common knowledge that top women players in some countries are not given professional status, nor are they given full-time contracts. Instead, these women are either considered to be semi-professional or amateurs. 

Player status, specifically being recognized as a professional, isn’t just about basic acknowledgment and appreciation. Players who fall into the category of semi-professional or amateur level receive little financial support from their respective clubs, but because of their employment status, they also are less likely to have access to employment rights — which include employment protections at a national level — and government support measures.

Semi-professional and amateur level players are also less likely to be a part of unions. Under unionization, professional athletes have benefits such as pensions, health care access, and maternity cover. 

The results from FIFPro’s survey showed that 52% of the countries surveyed have their women’s leagues categorized at an amateur level. In comparison, a mere 16% are considered professional, and 32% are considered semi-professional.

Contracts in the sport are a byproduct of the professionalization of the women’s game. A professional league is guaranteed to have contracts that recognize these women as professionals and protects them under employment laws. 

Twenty-nine percent of the football unions surveyed reported that not a single women footballer had a professional contract. Playing football without a written contract creates an environment where job security is at an all-time low, with clubs having the ability to dismiss players without warning; this is precisely what happened during the pandemic when 24% of football federations dismissed their players to cut back on wage costs. 

Those who were lucky not to be dismissed likely had their salaries either cut or eliminated entirely due to clauses in their contract that gave clubs that power, with 47% of federations admitting to exercising those clauses. Further research showed that 45% of federations that are a part of the European Union terminated players or modified their contracts illegally. 

When clubs actively terminate or change contracts, it not only affects these players’ livelihood, but it severely impacts their mental health. Mental health support has been a rarity in football, even in the men’s game, and the growth of social media has added to the mental pressure footballers face, with anyone seemingly allowed to have an opinion and share it for athletes to see. 

Mental health support during the pandemic is even more critical when players have not been told what decisions the higher-ups are making on their behalf. Add being placed in isolation in the countries they play in, away from family friends; it becomes mentally exhausting. 

Only 16% of the federations claimed that mental support was offered to their players, which is worrying when players surveyed showed an increase in depression and anxiety symptoms since the start of the pandemic, especially among those whose job in football was not secure. 

The most significant and most obvious disparity when it came to how the pandemic affected the women’s game compared to the men’s game was returning to play. 

When the first wave of the coronavirus hit and leagues worldwide were shut down, football federations made it clear that play would resume as soon as it was safe for everyone to do so. 

The reality is that safety was not the primary concern. These leagues are businesses. Businesses that lost a lot of money when they were shut down during the pandemic, businesses that were still forced, for the most part, to pay their workers without any incoming revenue. 

Which is why as soon as their respective governments eased up on some lockdown restrictions in late spring, men’s professional leagues all over the world jumped at the opportunity to resume play even though it wasn’t necessarily 100% safe. Despite fans not being allowed back in the stadiums, the leagues and clubs were able to find revenue from advertising and other business ventures, which allowed them to continue to pay their employees. Furthermore, the revenue coming in allowed these leagues to offer extra support systems to players and staff who were in need during the pandemic. Clubs also granted the players the option of whether or not they wanted to return for the season.

On the women’s side, however, seasons were cancelled. Champions were awarded, and teams were relegated based on the league standings before the shutdown. Twenty-six percent of football federations did not have their women leagues in their plans to return to play during the 2019/20 season. 

Of course, safety should be the priority, but when the English Football Association put out a statement after they cancelled the FA Women’s Super League, it raised questions. 

“[T]he decision to bring an end to the 2019-20 season was made in the best interest of the women’s game. This will also enable clubs, the FA Women’s Super League & Women’s Championship Board and the FA to plan, prepare and focus on next season when football returns for the 2020-21 campaign.”

The statement gave no valid excuse as to the men’s leagues could continue. It’s confusing as to why the ‘best interest of the women’s game’ does not match the men’s and why the women’s team needed more time to prepare and focus on the following season. The statement may have been better received if the decision to cancel had been applied to all. 

South Africa also had issues regarding allowing women to return, with the stakes affecting the general public’s interest in women’s football. 

The growth of women’s football in South Africa has been recent, and within the last decade or so, the popularity of the national team (who are currently ranked third among the Confederation of African Football in FIFA’s rankings, and went to their first FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2019) allowed a fully professional league to be formed within the past year. 

The league’s inaugural season was unable to gain the anticipated fan traction due to the pandemic, which put the search for finding a league sponsor on the backburner. Without a sponsor, club owners are forced to invest in their teams solely from their own pockets, which takes away pay from the players. 

Players, who have just begun training for the new season this month after an entire year off, will now be forced to regain the fan momentum when the new season starts, hoping that sponsors will be interested in investing in the league. A situation that may have been avoided had play been resumed in August, which was when the South African Premier Division, the men’s professional football league in South Africa, restarted. 

In October of 2020, the Dutch government deemed that because team-sized trainings were unsafe and subsequently cancelled football across the country, except for the Eredivisie, the highest level of professional men’s football in the Netherlands. In response, female players pushed back by reaching out to politicians personally, outlining the situation’s unfairness. The overwhelmingly negative reaction forced the government to recall their decision and allow women’s football to continue.

It may seem all doom and gloom for women’s professional football because of the pandemic’s effects, especially based on the findings in FIFPRO’s survey. However, a few football associations have supported their women’s team during this pandemic, which has led to success on the pitch. 

The National Women’s Soccer League, the highest level of professional football in the United States, were applauded for their management of contracts. The NWSL became the first professional sports league in the United States to return, and it was able to stage two tournaments in 2020.

The tournaments’ success came from guaranteeing benefits such as insurance and housing and allowing players to opt-out of playing should they choose (players who opted out were still given full benefits). 

America’s southern neighbours also joined the movement in supporting their women footballers during the pandemic by investing entirely towards bringing back the Liga MX Femenil as quickly and as safely as possible. 

Due to the pandemic, FIFA announced a relief plan that made up to 1.5 billion USD available to football federations who apply. One of FIFA’s clauses was that a minimum of 50% of the funds received must be allocated towards women’s football. 

The Mexican Football Association took it one step further by using almost all their funds from FIFA to support women’s football and ensured that the Liga MX Femenil returned in August of 2020. The funds were used towards players’ salaries and coronavirus test kits to ensure that the women are playing in a safe environment. 

Furthermore, countries like Span, Italy and Argentina have also fully professionalized women’s leagues or are in the process of doing so within the next year in the wake of the pandemic. 

COVID-19 has definitely widened the discussions about the inequalities women face in football. While it is too soon to know the full impacts of the ongoing pandemic, the worry is that if these athletes and the leagues they play in are continuously cast to one side, the progress made over the years to elevate women’s football would all be for nothing.

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