ON May 28, 2019, I sat in in a record crowd of 18,555 Saltire-waving fans watching Scotland’s women’s team take on Jamaica in a pre-Euros friendly at Hampden.

It was a joyous and gender-balanced affair: men and women with their sons and daughters, all cheering on rising stars including Erin Cuthbert, Caroline Weir and Sophie Howard, whose goals secured a 3-2 victory.

It was a watershed moment, all the more astonishing for its suddenness. For decades, women’s football had struggled to gain a foothold in Scotland as elsewhere: underfunded, under-appreciated female players had been the butt of jokes from male fans, players and pundits alike.

When – in 2013 – Tam Cowan suggested Fir Park should be torched to cleanse it after hosting a women’s game, there was justifiable outrage, but he was, in truth, expressing views that would have passed without comment in pubs and grounds up and down the country.

And yet now, these female athletes – some of whom paid subs for the privilege of pulling on their club jerseys – had qualified for a major tournament (something the men’s team hadn’t done since 1998). And far from being mocked as second class, their achievement was being lauded. “Scottish women’s football has crossed the rubicon,” commentator Jim Spence averred.

But it was a blossoming that spread way beyond our borders. The whole tournament attracted unprecedented national and international attention.

Channel 4 showed the matches live and – the ultimate arbiter of sporting significance – Panini brought out a dedicated sticker book, raising the players’ profiles, turning them into icons.

There was a sense of unstoppability, which proved both real and illusory. As the excitement around this year’s World Cup demonstrated, women’s football has continued to gain in popularity, but not so much in financial parity and the respect it commands from clubs or the sport’s governing bodies.

Deep misogyny

Tickets to women’s games continue to be cheaper, and female players earn much less than their male counterparts. Worse, while pundits pay lip service to the skills on show, there remains, within the sport, a deep-seated and multi-layered misogyny those at the top have little appetite to expunge.

This misogyny has been exposed in all its toxic glory by the Luis Rubiales affair, in which the triumph of Spain’s women’s team was overshadowed by the president of the Spanish Football Federation monstrous ego. But it is built into the sport’s DNA. It is present in clubs’ cleaving to sexually soiled players like David Goodwillie and Mason Greenwood in defiance of the hurt caused to their women’s teams.

And it is present in the undermining of the likes of Emma Hayes.


Emma Hayes

Emma Hayes


Hayes recently told BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour she was often asked when she was moving to the men’s game. As if she wasn’t already coaching elite athletes, as if her job as the manager of Chelsea’s women’s team could only ever be worthwhile if it was seen as a stepping stone to “proper football”.

In a different context, perhaps, Rubiales’ kiss of striker Jenni Hermoso could have been just that – a quickly forgotten over-exuberance (though the crotch-grabbing at the final whistle told a less innocent story).

But it took place against a back-drop of sexism which percolates through Spanish football, as it percolates through football in other countries. Rubiales’ attempt to turn the narrative against Hermoso – and his speech decrying “false feminism” – was so compelling because it was the open expression of those views we all know exist but which we are always being told are a figment of our paranoia.

It was an allegory, too, for how powerful men protect one another. That shot of Spanish team coach Jorge Vilda clapping Rubiales – prioritising his old chum over his players – carried echoes of other betrayals. Raith Rovers choosing to cut its women’s team loose, rather than sack its rapist striker. Manchester United standing by Greenwood for as long as it could, before making its female players responsible for his departure.

In a recent column, writer Matthew Syed called Vilda’s subsequent sacking (and replacement by his female deputy Montse Tomé) “woke fanaticism”, saying of Rubiales: “This is the man who pays Vilda’s salary, who, during that same speech, promised to increase Vilda’s salary almost threefold.”

But Syed’s argument – that Vilda is another victim of football’s power structures – is specious. Vilda had more power than the female players he coached, which is why he ought to have kept his hands firmly by his side. Syed says “for [his] money” Rubiales’ behaviour was “beyond the pale”, but then “woke fanaticism” is just another way of saying “false feminism” so I’ll draw my own conclusions.

Vilda a villain?

ANY analysis of power dynamics might more usefully consider how all but three of the 15 players who last year criticised Vilda’s coaching methods were absent from the World Cup squad and how, back then, Vilda’s position was shored up by support from Rubiales, who threatened mutinous players with a five-year ban from selection.

It might also pause to ask why Rubiales’ priority was the inflation of Vilda’s wages and not the wages of the players who had just won the cup.

Of course, collectively, female players do have power. Last year, the United States Women’s National Team won its long-running battle to secure an equal rate of pay in all friendlies and tournaments including the World Cup.

Such activism comes at a cost. Megan Rapinoe – arguably the world’s most famous and most vocal female footballer

– who led the charge has found herself portrayed as vile and obnoxious for the crimes of knowing her own value and taking up too much space.

But it is also self-perpetuating. As more female players band together – to increase their wages, to improve their conditions – they gain greater control over their own destinies. We are seeing this in Spain, where 81 female players have said they will not play for the national side until Rubiales has been replaced.

They are also refusing to play in the Spanish league until ongoing pay negotiations are settled to their satisfaction. (As an aside, Real Betis striker Borja Iglesias is refusing to play for the men’s national team until Rubiales is gone, proving that it is, in fact, possible for male players to back their female counterparts.) On Friday afternoon, Spanish prosecutors accused Rubiales of sexual assault and coercion.

If there’s a positive to be taken from this affair, it is that – while exposing the extent of the sexism – it also demonstrates female players no longer have to tolerate it in silence. And that solidarity can yield results.

Sexism allegations

IN July, Dominika Conc, vice-captain of Slovenia’s national women’s team, and 30 teammates, wrote an open letter to the president of the Slovenian football federation (NZS) demanding the removal of head coach Borut Jarc over allegations of bullying, sexism, body-shaming and inappropriate behaviour.


Dominika Conc

Dominika Conc


Last week, as the Spanish scandal raged on, Jarc finally resigned.

The plight of the Spanish squad – whose joy at winning the World Cup has been snatched away – also won support from their defeated English rivals. A statement released by the Lionesses read: “ Abuse is abuse and we have all seen the truth. The behaviour of those who think they are invincible must not be tolerated and people shouldn’t need convincing to take action against any form of harassment.”

I don’t want to speak too soon, but it feels like women’s football is experiencing a watershed moment – a #MeToo moment – which might change the ugly dynamics of the beautiful game once and for all.