The “F” word: In the country of football, can female players find true support?

In Brazil, women and girls are too often left on the bench when it comes to fair play in the country's national pastime.
Brazilian women's football
Photo by Kemberly Groue / Source:

Brazil proudly declares itself the “country of football”, where this sport represents a national passion which moves both minds and hearts. However, this passion is not completely felt by Brazilian women yet. In the country with the highest number of men’s world championships (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002), women’s football is still quite underdeveloped – which means a great instrument for debating and promoting gender equality is being wasted.

Football as a social policy

Increasingly, developing countries have recognized sports as an essential tool to generate social change. In Brazil’s case specifically, football has historically been a channel through which the poor have obtained quick economic mobility. Regarding the issue of gender, experiences all around the world have shown how the practice of football by women can be used to encourage female empowerment, leading to the creation of key policies against sexism and in favor of women’s greater participation in social life.

This discussion of gender equality emerged more evidently in Brazil after the country hosted the 2014 World Cup. The traumatic elimination from that competition transformed into a social reflection about the role played by football in Brazilian society. Step by step, the country has started an effort to understand football in all of its economic, social and cultural complexities – including those of gender. It has been a painful process for a country which has always proudly considered itself self-sufficient in the most popular sport on the planet.

Football and sexism in Brazil

In Brazil, football has historically been a passion exclusively intended for men. The first registered match between Brazilian women took place in 1921, almost thirty years after Charles Miller brought the first football from Europe to the country. Similarly, the first football club of female footballers was created in 1958, more than half a century after the creation of the first male one. Furthermore, women’s football was forbidden in Brazil during the following decades, being permitted again only in 1981 – although still forbidding women to play professionally.

Only in 1988 was the first women’s national team formed, eighteen years after the country’s third men’s world championship, which solidified Brazil as a football superpower. The struggles faced by women to play this sport throughout the twentieth century are just one expression of the misogyny Brazilian women historically had to deal with to establish themselves in the country.

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An issue that’s still in play

Those struggles of inequality, however, are not restricted to the past. On the contrary, they are still present in Brazil’s society and continue to be expressed through the country’s football. The very modern stadiums built for the 2014 World Cup are still male-dominated spaces. For instance, even those women who are eventually part of the refereeing team often hear sexist jokes, including jokes about rape. In these stadiums, sexist songs are also said to offend opponent fans and players as well.

Finally, when a Brazilian female footballer unanimously and universally recognized as talented stands out – such as Marta, who has been five times elected the best female footballer in the world by the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) – she is called the “Pelé in a skirt”, pejoratively compared to the male Brazilian player frequently pointed as the best footballer of all times.

Sizing up the competition

These clear examples of sexism in the industry consequently reflect on the practical situation of women’s football in the country. Nowadays, according to the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF), the greatest majority of Brazil’s female footballers are not professionally registered, do not receive regular wages and, when they do, the wages do not reach the national minimum. In 2016, there were only 1624 professional female footballers in Brazil – while this number reached 103 thousand in France, for comparison.

These numbers are representative of the whole scenario of women’s football in Latin America: the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) says only 6% of the female footballers of the world come from Latin America, while 21% are from Europe and 53% from the US and Canada. While Brazil has just recently established a permanent women’s national team, Germany (which shares with US the top of FIFA’s female football ranking) has seven teams, according to different age categories.

Practical constraints

A very important constraint for the development of women’s and girl’s football in Brazil is the lack of early-age categories. Contrary to practices related to men’s football, the Brazilian professional clubs do not express interest nor offer incentives to form and follow teams for young girls. When girl’s teams are eventually formed, they are often disbanded after playing against much more professional teams, generally from developed countries.

Developed countries, and particularly the US, are often the destiny of any talented female Brazilian footballer. Migration is commonly the only opportunity for female players to develop technically and physically as sportswomen. Besides, in developed countries, a player’s talent in the field also frequently means a chance to learn foreign languages and attend university. Even Marta, the Brazilian football superstar, moved to Sweden for five years to secure her successful career.  

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Progress and challenges

Some progress has been made in the last years though. The 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, USA when women’s football finally became an official Olympic sport and Brazil was surprisingly ranked fourth, is a milestone on the impact of women’s football in the country. Since then, the Profut Law has created an obligation for the largest Brazilian football clubs to create permanent women’s teams – which has then allowed the creation of a national women’s league. In the Latin America’s context, CONMEBOL has similarly implemented a policy which enforces the creation of women’s teams for the participant clubs of the Copa Libertadores, the most important Latin American football championship.

In spite of this progress, much still needs to be done. The lack of regular sponsorship for women’s football in Brazil is often pointed to as a main constraint for the development of the sport in the country, and the recent policies have put its responsibility exclusively on the football clubs. It is important that the government and policymakers equally assume their responsibility, recognizing the key role that women’s football can play in Brazil to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment. Only then can Brazil become the “country of football” for everyone.

Diego da Silva Rodrigues

Diego is an applied economist interested in policy evaluation and quantitative methods. His main interests are around family issues, such as marriage, parenting, gender, fertility and children, being member of the International Network of Child Support Scholars (INCSS) and the Parenting Culture Studies Postgraduate Network. Diego has also publications in migration and health economics, and is currently involved with human rights and democracy activism in South America. At present, he is completing his PhD at the University of Kent, UK, and is lecturer in Economics at IESGO, Brazil.
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