Soccer, Sports

In conversation with Gemma Clarke

This summer, France will host the eighth FIFA Women’s World Cup. Although historical record shows that women formally organized their own soccer games starting in the late 19th century, it took until 1991 for FIFA to establish a Women’s World Cup. To celebrate the trailblazers who have made women’s soccer everything that it is today, Gemma Clarke wrote Soccerwomen, her debut book, which will release in April.

At the beginning of her career as a sports journalist, Clarke covered men’s soccer. When she started reporting on women’s games, she often compared the players to the men that she had been reporting on. Referring to Kelly Smith as the female David Beckham and Karen Carney as the female Wayne Rooney placed the game in the only frame of reference that most of her readers were familiar with. Over time, Clarke realized that women’s soccer had plenty of stories, characters, and histories that had not yet been shared.

“It was always about finding a good story and finding somebody that I wanted to write about,” Clarke said in an interview with The McGill Tribune.

Soccerwomen takes the reader through the history of the most influential women in soccer from the 1890s to the present. It features the stories of the most prolific women in the history of the sport, including players and coaches from across the globe. While women’s soccer has been largely dominated by the United States since the mid-1990s, Clarke wanted to make sure that her book reflected the variety in women’s soccer.

“I […] think that there is a slight diversity issue in women’s soccer, certainly in the [United States],” Clarke said. “I really wanted to find out what was happening with other women around the world and to find out what their experience was, not only [with] soccer, but also what their life experience was. [I wanted to] use soccer as a channel to tell their stories.”

Clarke documents the current struggles of female soccer players throughout Soccerwomen, particularly with regard to the attempts to professionalize the sport. Despite the quick growth of women’s soccer since the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991, multiple professional leagues have folded since 2000 due to financial troubles and a lack of corporate sponsorships. Conditions for professional players have improved slightly. In the United States, where the culture of women’s soccer is arguably the strongest, the National Women’s Soccer League begins its seventh season next month. In England, Barclays recently signed on as a Football Association Women’s Super League sponsor in a deal worth £10 million over the next three seasons.

Players, particularly younger ones, have also been able to attract lucrative brand deals in recent years. There are concerns, however, that these endorsements place players on pedestals, forcing them to act as role models in ways that their male counterparts do not. Furthermore, female players often rely on these sponsorships to make a living since clubs cannot guarantee living wages. Most male players, even if they are below the elite level, can still make comfortable salaries without huge brand deals.

“I see so much paid content [from the American women], and I understand that they have to do that because that’s how they make their living,” Clarke said. “It is interesting to look back at the [American] team of 1999 [….] Tiffeny Milbrett actually had more goals that tournament, but it was Mia Hamm [who] became the face of women’s soccer […], and it comes down to marketability [….] Tiffeny Milbrett was much more of a maverick in the way she wanted to play and be coached, and, at the time, that marked her out as difficult.”

There is still a long way for the sport to go in achieving any kind of equality on and off the field, but, since the first international matches in the 1960s, women’s soccer has come a long way.

“Even if it seems like there are some things that will never change, like the question of equal pay […], you can look at the game and say ‘look at what it was 20 years ago, and look at what it might be in [10] years,’ and it all points in a very positive direction,” Clarke said.

Soccerwomen comes out on April 16.

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