By Lin Taylor
LONDON, July 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As the women's World Cup celebrates record crowds, closing out the best month in the history of female soccer, controversy off the pitch about fairness has hogged headlines as much as goals.
With unprecedented TV coverage, the tournament ends on Sunday in host nation France, when the U.S. team will defend its title against the Netherlands.
Then the focus on fairness can really kick off.
From the U.S. team suing the U.S. Soccer Federation over pay gaps, to star player Ada Hegerberg quitting Norway's team to protest for gender equality, female players and fans have used the unprecedented spotlight to voice concerns about equality.
"One of the beautiful things about football is that it does provide a platform for those kinds of discussions to take place," said Sarai Bareman, the inaugural chief women football officer at FIFA, the global soccer governing body.
FIFA has pledged to expand women's role in the sport, appointing Fatma Samoura in 2016 as its first female secretary general and vowing to invest nearly $500 million into the women's game by 2022.
Last month, FIFA said it had banned the former president of the Afghanistan Football Federation from soccer for life after he was found guilty of abusing his position and sexually abusing female players.
The soccer body was also quick to back two fans for wearing t-shirts with slogans demanding Iranian women be allowed access to stadiums, saying it was wrong to remove them from the match.
Iranian women and girls have not been allowed to attend any men's sporting events in the country for much of the four decades since the Islamic revolution, and they have not been granted access to matches involving top clubs since 1981.
"Even outside of football, there seems to be a real movement towards the empowerment of women and equality for women," Bareman said in a phone interview.
SAFETY IN NUMBERS
Cheryl Cooky, who has researched gender inequality in sport over the past 30 years, said the growth in popularity of women's soccer had emboldened players to air long-held grievances.
The World Cup drew a record of more than 10 million French viewers across all three home-team matches, and hit a record 11.7 million views in Britain when the country played the U.S. team, said FIFA, which is expecting global views of a billion.
"The questions around pay equity and discrimination are really being debated and engaged in the public sphere in ways that we didn't see years ago," said Cooky, an associate professor at the U.S.-based Purdue University.
The 'beautiful game' is played by more than 13 million women and girls, said FIFA, which wants that to hit 60 million by 2026. Over the past decade, a total of 32 women's teams have competed at the World Cup, which is half the number of men's teams, according to Women's World Cup in Numbers, which has analysed the state of the men's and women's game since 1991.
Players compete under the same rules but come out with very different rewards.
Joining a chorus of calls for fairer pay, the Nigerian team last month staged a sit-in protest, demanding that the country's soccer federation clear their unpaid bonus payments.
Though the thorny issue of prize money for the women's World Cup has been broached - it doubled to $30 million this year - the financial gap between the sexes remains wide.
The prize fund for the men's World Cup in Russia last year was about 400 million euros ($451 million).
"Women athletes feel more of a sense of safety around calling out the discrimination, whereas in the past (they) wouldn't want to rock the boat," Cooky said.
That fearlessness surfaced in an online spat between the U.S. women's team and U.S. President Donald Trump, after a video surfaced of co-captain Megan Rapinoe saying she would not go to the White House if her team won the World Cup.
Rapinoe, who is gay, is critical of Trump's stance on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, as well as his treatment of women and migrants.
She does not sing her country's national anthem in protest.
"THE AIR WE BREATHE"
Yet in some parts of the world, where women and girls are discouraged from playing soccer, any thought of calling out discrimination or winning better pay are just a dream, said Maggie Murphy from advocacy group Equal Playing Field (EPF).
"They have the talent, massive potential and are already exceeding expectations in many ways, but the investment, the dedication and equal treatment for those female players really needs to be addressed," she said.
Yasmeen Shabsough, a professional player in Jordan who also runs soccer matches for girls in refugee camps with EPF, said some countries - her own included - struggle to see how women can possibly play what many consider a man's game.
"They just can't accept that girls can play football. It's a male-dominated game," she said.
"Even if the parents let the girls play, the wider community, the neighbours, the grandparents might pressure the parents to stop girls from playing soccer."
Sustaining momentum after Sunday would be easier with more media coverage of all women's sports, said researcher Cooky.
Only 4% of sports media content is dedicated to women's sports, with 12% of sports news presented by women, according to UNESCO, the cultural body of the United Nations.
"Men's sports is the air that we breathe. If women's sports were to have the same stature in our society, it would go a long way in terms of challenging conventional ideas around femininity and masculinity," said Cooky.
"It would send important messages that women are strong, athletic, competitive, aggressive - and expanding our notion of what it means to be a woman in our society is a good thing."
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(Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and slavery, property rights, social innovation, resilience and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories.)
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