If we are serious about tackling the health and fitness crisis and encouraging young women to take part in sport, then our best female athletes should be feted, admired, respected and set up as worthy role models for our daughters.
A good start would probably be to give women competing at the highest international level a living wage.
The England team who challenged for the World Cup in China throughout September were paid just £40 a day by the FA while they were out there, according to the BBC. £40 a day, for five weeks, while they were on leave from their everyday jobs. (Remember, these women aren’t full-time footballers – they’re students, community development officers and, in the case of Vicky Exley, postwomen. They fit in their training round the 9-5 slog the rest of us have to go through.)
Chelsea’s Eniola Aluko (a law student) has criticised the Football Associated for the lack of investment in the elite women’s game. Quite rightly, she points out that they’re not asking for parity with the men (who are of course full-time pros – in fact, the starting 11 for England’s game against Austria on Friday night earned a combined weekly total of over £800,000) – just enough for them to feel appreciated and not have to work hours of overtime after the tournament to recoup their losses.
“We all feel the same, that we don’t feel respected,” said Aluko. “Players had to take unpaid leave and some are now not able to sustain training because they don’t have the time because of the money lost in China. We are all grateful that we went to the World Cup, but realistically we can’t sustain the level of progress because of employment issues.”
For those who argue that the women don’t deserve more money than this token payment because the quality of football simply isn’t consistently top-level, Aluko makes the excellent point that if the best female footballers in England are having to work double shifts at the office, they’re going to get less time to train, their skill levels won’t increase and their fitness levels will drop – which has already begun to happen.
The FA insist, as they always do, that investment in the women’s game has never been higher, from grass roots to international level, and have declared, as they always do, that they’ll be presenting a report on how to make the “product” more attractive to the media and to sponsors. I’d suggest one way to do that is stop patronising the very best female players, treat them with respect and as the brilliant athletes they are, welcome them as integral cogs of the game’s structure rather than a token gesture towards equality, wheeling them out whenever a new kit is launched. If the game’s governing body take the England lionesses seriously and are shown to be taking them seriously, the rest of the country must surely follow.