Should women be allowed to play in men's football?
Oldelpaso CC BY-SA 3.0
In 2016, Canadian minnows Calgary Foothills were set to make an impressive signing. The Foothills, plying their trade in the USA's 4th tier Premier Development League, were in advanced talks with a goalkeeper who had represented Canada at the highest levels, winning a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics and putting in some impressive performances for big-name professional clubs. This goalkeeper excelled in a trial with the Foothills, impressing the coach with displays of great agility and power.
But there was one problem; this new player was in fact a woman, Stephanie Labbé. But the storied international did enough to impress the Calgary manager who considered her superior to the two male goalkeepers he had on his roster. The Foothills were hopeful of fielding the international star in their first game of the season.
No dice. The league management poured cold water on the idea of a woman playing in their competition, stating that as a "gender-based league" Labbé was disqualified from playing. Unable to join up with the men's team, she instead turned out for Calgary Foothills' women's team before moving abroad to play professionally.
This wasn't the first time a men's league had tried and failed to sign a female player. In 2004, FIFA denied Striker Maribel Dominguez the chance to play for top Mexican club Ceyala, although the club later admitted to trying to sign her as a publicity stunt.
But is there any real reason for women to be denied access to men's leagues if they are good enough? After all, nobody was forcing Calgary to select Labbé. Their manager genuinely felt she was the best goalkeeper available to the club.
Irony in 'just play in a women's league' argument (beyond the obvious, and that Labbe went through tryouts) is USL shuttered its W-League. https://t.co/a2LQiDyVSw
When we put aside our prejudice, it's hard to understand why teams shouldn't be allowed to select the players they feel are best for them. It's true that, by and large, women are smaller than men, and some suggested they are more likely to sustain injuries. But no one would deny a male player the chance to compete for being smaller or more prone to injuries than the rest of the team. Football is played by people of all shapes and sizes and injuries are common. Anyone who plays the game knows the risks they are taking and women are just as capable as men when it comes to making those kinds of decisions.
Critics may point to the difficulties of providing changing facilities for women. Again though, if a club want to deal with this issue then its their prerogative. And it's hardly an insurmountable problem is it? Players could simply change/shower at different times or make use of cubicles.
By enforcing strict gender segregation, FIFA is imposing an arbitrary, sexist role on women in football. As a game where players rise or fall depending on their ability, there is no reason for the authorities not to let women at least try to play. If they are not good enough, they will simply not be selected and no one will be any the worse off.
The women's game is experiencing a rapid surge of growth. The 2019 Women's World Cup has attracted record TV viewing figures and the corresponding increase in funding and publicity means women's teams are now able to invest in better facilities and coaches. The standard of play is increasing with each season, and the best female players deserve the chance to compete on a level playing field. It's already happening at some levels. In Holland, women can play for men’s teams at amateur level, with 19-year-old Ellen Fokkema joining up with VV Foarut for the 2020/21 campaign.
UEFA certified coach and De Montfort University lecturer Dr Jean Williams spoke publicly about the need for women to be allowed to participate in men's football, stating that gender segregation represented, "deeply imbedded inequality" and that football authorities needed to, "look at equal opportunities law to review whether women should be allowed to compete at the highest level". Like it or not, women are working their way into the men's game, showing they have what it takes as match officials and coaches. Men's teams all over the world from Hong Kong to Scotland experienced great success under female leadership (Chan Yuen-Ting led Hong Kong's Eastern to a top-flight title), while top men's players have taken roles with women's teams too. Surely it's only a matter of time before women are allowed to play alongside men and show the world what they're capable of?