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Striving for a level playing field in world football

In light of a lot of the problems surrounding the Women's World Cup, it's time that we start re-examining how we treat women's football. Let's try to level the playing field.

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Scott Heavey

Note: I've had the pleasure of using this spot to write about whatever I want for the past few weeks. The fact that we've got such an open-minded audience who are willing to read about pretty much anything Villa-related is one of the real perks of writing here. But there isn't much going on in the world of the claret and blue right now, and if you'll indulge me, I'd like to delve into an issue that strays a bit afield from the club for a week.

Today marks the beginning of Women's World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF, and this cycle is starting to shed a lot of light on the extreme inequity in the way that the men's and women's games are treated in the world. The most stunning example is the issue of playing on turf versus playing on grass. One of the things that any country wishing to host the men's FIFA World Cup must commit to is providing natural grass playing surfaces for players. By and large, most footballers will tell you that natural grass is a far better surface on which to play than artificial turf (in fact, 77% of the world's players have said they prefer grass to turf), so the restriction makes a lot of sense.

But for the Women's World Cup to be held in Canada this summer, FIFA decided that artificial surfaces would be just fine. If that seems to be a very strange double standard to you, you're not alone. Almost immediately after the announcement was made that the final (and other matches) would be played on artificial turf, a number of the world's best women players retained legal counsel, and have since sued FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association. It's a lawsuit I desperately hope they win, too.

There's absolutely no reason for the Women's World Cup to be treated differently than the marquee FIFA event we all watched this summer. And there are plenty of reasons not to play on turf, including the fact that it is more tough on players from a physical standpoint. And while there is no empirical data to support that claim, anecdotal evidence of more aches and pains and longer recovery time from players around the world is so overwhelming as to take on the force of truth. Canada has the resources to host the World Cup on grass, and the decision to do otherwise can't be seen as anything but discriminatory.

But the turf/grass thing is big picture. And it's time we start treating women's football equitably to men's in all ways. Take, for instance, the stories of the teams from Trinidad and Tobago and Haiti. Both are hoping to go through CONCACAF qualifying to make their first-ever World Cup with an expanded field this year. And both teams are facing extreme financial hardship in doing so, the likes of which we don't see at the equivalent stage in the men's game.

In the former case, the team arrived in Dallas for training with Randy Waldrum, the head coach of the NWSL's Houston Dash. When they got there, he found that the entire club had been sent with $500, no equipment, and no way to get even from the airport. He put out a call for help on twitter, and in a really heartwarming turn of events, has received plenty of support in feeding, sheltering, and preparing the team for their first match against the United States. FC Dallas (who you may remember from Villa's preseason tour) offered food and training facilities free of charge. Donations were collected online (you can still donate!). Now that the tournament has begun, CONCACF will cover expenses, but it's hard to imagine a similar situation having occurred with the men's team. Plenty was done, but it shouldn't have been necessary.

In the case of Haiti, they've received a bit more support from their FA, but it has come in the form of spending six months a year in Ohio training for the tournament away from their families and friends. They have no salary for the players, none for the coaches, and only the barest of necessities with which to train. From a New York Times article on the situation comes this revealing anecdote:

"When the soles of one player's cleats fell apart during a practice in the summer of 2013, she could not continue because there were no spare shoes"

And certainly, there is something to be said for the fact that the economy of Haiti is such that we couldn't expect much support to be given to a football squad. But it seems, again, as if there is a vast discrepancy between the men's and women's sides. Again, from the New York Times:

In Haiti, the women's national team is largely ignored and unappreciated. Women's soccer still carries a social stigma there and can be viewed as unfeminine. Sometimes men and boys prevent women and girls even from training, the president of the soccer federation said.

Kencia Marseille, 33, the team captain, said that her mother spanked her with a belt when she caught her playing as a girl. Today, some mothers still want their daughters home, to study, to help provide for siblings, to restore the bonds of family.

"The Haitian people don't believe in us," said goalkeeper Geralda Saintilus, 28. "They say we're not good enough. We'll try to prove them wrong."

"The Haitian people don't believe in us." That's heartbreaking. Women performing at the absolute peak of their ability and getting no support where their male counterparts would be celebrated. That's one of the best parts of the World Cup: countries getting behind underdog teams who have no right performing above their heads.

And why the double standard? It's hard to find any reason except "it's women playing, and not men." The standard of football in the Women's World Cup is extraordinary (I honestly prefer watching it to the men's version). The passion that we love so much about the World Cup is there, and it's perhaps even amplified by the chance to see these world-class players when we don't normally have that opportunity. It's pretty well acknowledged that men's club football is better than international football, but the same isn't as true on the women's side of things. The same league structure doesn't exist to support women's football as it does for men (another topic for another time), and that means that the best game is to be seen at the international level, in the World Cup and the Olympics.

There is literally no reason why the women's game should not be handled in the same way that the men's game is. And the best place to begin trying to shift the world's perspective on the issue is in the World Cup. Unfortunately, it is at that level that the inequities between the two games have become most apparent. FIFA needs to take a stand and lead by example on this issue (though knowing FIFA, I suspect they won't) and we as fans need to demand equality in the sport. It's time to stop treating women in football (hell, women anywhere) as second-class citizens. If we truly value what makes this sport so special, namely the fact that it can be played and enjoyed by anyone at any level, we need to make sure that it is indeed as special as we imagine it to be.