International women’s football is taking some hard tackles

Fans hold signs in support of the Canada women's national soccer team.
Fans hold signs in support of the Canada women's national soccer team's protest for equal pay ahead of the 2023 SheBelieves Cup. (Photo by Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images)

Recently, fiascoes regarding the international women’s football squads of Spain, the United States, and other nations have dominated the news cycle. The football community has been hoping that the sport would take steps forward to rectify the situation.

Players and fans want teams to be treated with respect and equity. With the increased visibility and market share that the women’s game is garnering, this should be a given.

Governing federations should be elevating their women’s teams and helping grow the international game. Everyone involved with the sport sees this, knows this, and understands this. We know it is going to get better.

And then, just like that, it gets worse.

Oh, Canada…

Bombshell revelations have come out of Canada regarding the treatment of the Canada women’s national team, as well as the younger squads for both women and men. Canada Soccer, the nation’s governing body for the sport, faces serious charges from the senior squad.

Last year, Canada Soccer president Nick Bontis stated publicly that it would achieve pay and support equity for the women’s and men’s senior teams. The women’s team has averred that this is not the case and that the women’s team is suffering greatly for it.

Facilities, personnel, pay levels, and the configuration of financial records are decidedly not equal. The team nearly had to cancel their trip to Brazil last year, until a private donor stepped up to fund the camp. In the meantime, Canada Soccer received a great amount of bad publicity for their ill-advised spending.

Trouble for both senior squads

The men’s national team is standing by their compatriots, and have also voiced their displeasure with Canada Soccer. They have also had issues with the way Canada Soccer has conducted business. The team had contentious battles with the federation leading up to the Men’s World Cup last year.

Team Canada pose with their gold medals at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Gold Medalists of Team Canada pose with their gold medals during the Women’s Football Competition Medal Ceremony at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)

Support from their own

All of these actions have come at a time when the Canada women’s national team is achieving its greatest success on the pitch. The defending Olympic champions are currently sixth in the world rankings. They are amongst the favorites to win the upcoming World Cup. Bev Priestman has the squad playing terrific football, and the team possesses all of the necessary pieces to be champions on the international stage.

Canada head coach Bev Priestman listens to the Canadian national anthem.
Canada head coach Bev Priestman listens to the Canadian national anthem before the 2023 SheBelieves Cup match against Japan. (Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images)

Behind the scenes, however, the battles between the squad and Soccer Canada are taking their toll on the athletes. Just two days after the threatened legal action by Canada Soccer, the team opened the SheBelieves Cup. Canada faced their biggest rival and current world #1, the United States.

Prior to the match, the two sides joined together in a circle of support and solidarity. Meanwhile, several other national programs worldwide have shown their support for the embattled Canadian players. Squads around the world wore purple wristbands in their international tournaments in solidarity with Canada. The show of support from their global counterparts was hugely important both for the Canadian squad and for the football world to see.

Team Canada and Team United States huddle up.
Team Canada and Team United States huddle up prior to the 2023 SheBelieves Cup match at Exploria Stadium on February 16, 2023. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

The battle has taken a toll

It was obvious that the Canadian side was a bit disjointed to start the match. The defense and positioning looked very hesitant, chasing the play instead of making it. The first 20 minutes were played almost exclusively in the Canadian end. The first US goal was made possible as their striker was unmarked at the top of the box. The second was a gift from a poor backpass that was gobbled up. These are mistakes that are not typically seen by this Canadian squad. It stands to reason that the players may have more on their minds right now than just playing football.

“This game leading into it could have gone two ways, either we’re fighting for everything, we come out on fire or we come out flat. You saw those first 10–15 minutes we came out flat. We looked like a team that was tired, a team that was mentally exhausted,” said captain Christine Sinclair.

The team played much better as the match went on, and looked like the side that won the Olympics when they defeated Brazil in their next match. Unfortunately, the team was beaten handily in their final match against Japan and finished the tournament in last place.

Canada’s SheBelieves results somewhat mirrored its struggles off the field, just as Priestman alluded to before the tournament.

The hits keep coming

Just a week after Canada’s issues came to light, the football world was rocked again. All-world defender and captain of the French national team, Wendie Renard, made a huge announcement.

Due to the actions of The French Football Federation, Renard is stepping away from the national team. The announcement came just four months before the World Cup, where France is one of the favorites.

In a statement, Renard said she could no longer support the federation and its treatment of French players. Immediately following the captain’s decision, fellow national team stars Marie-Antoinette Katoto and Kadidiatou Dianni announced that they would also step away from the national team.

This events have had huge blowback within the French program. Embattled coach Corinne Diacre has been pressured to resign, and the federation is currently deciding her fate. Diacre has had many clashes with her players, with some of France’s top footballers leaving the program. In addition to the three this past week, Amandine Henry, Eugenie LeSomer, Gaetene Thiney, and Sarah Bouhaddi have all left the program or been forced out.

It only gets worse

As bad as the news is regarding the players, it got markedly worse.

French FA president Noel Le Graet resigned from his position this week. His departure came following an audit of the federation’s actions over the past several years. This audit was spurred by allegations of a massive cover-up of sexual misconduct and even sexual abuse that occurred during Le Graet’s administration.

Several ranking members of the administration had preceded Le Graet in stepping down or being dismissed. The final results of the audit have not yet been published, but they could very well be more damning.

Have we learned nothing?

Following the termination of their respective times at their federations, one might expect that Bontis and Le Graet would be persona non grata in football. However, the exact opposite has happened.

Bontis was named CONCACAF Council vice-president at almost the same moment he tendered his resignation from Canada Soccer.

Meanwhile, La Graet will continue to oversee FIFA’s Paris office and has the support of FIFA president Gianni Infantino. The message sent by these actions seems to be that there are no consequences for poor actions.

Time to do what’s right

So, now, international women’s football faces a serious reckoning. Canada Soccer must step up and negotiate with their senior squads in good faith.

The women’s team is already one of the best in the world; the men’s side is on the rise. It is long past time for them to receive the financial backing, promotional program, and complete support that they have earned and deserve.

The FFF needs to show its women’s program that they are valued, that they will be protected, and that they have the support of the federation. And is there any hope for Spain’s national team? The football world is watching. Will it see the changes that it deserves?

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