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Disharmony plaguing international women's soccer

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Australia's Matildas won the 2023 Cup of Nations in the lead-up to the FIFA Women's World Cup (Screenshot via YouTube)

As the FIFA Women’s World Cup draws near and national teams begin to descend on us, it is imperative we see beyond the jerseys and anthems and understand that female athletes are women deserving of support on and off the field.

In 2009, an author and an economist published a book together called Soccernomics, which was hailed as being soccer’s answer to Moneyball — a book based on the data of the game.

In their book, the two allude to the fact that statistically, the English Premier League has more transfers from Scandinavia than it does from Latin America, despite the fact that Latin American players are more widely known for their talent and skill.

The reason, according to them, is that time and experience have shown that Latin American players adapt poorly to the culture in the UK, which is a prerequisite to performing well at any club within the English Premier League.

The authors write:

Latin Americans don’t speak English, don’t like cold weather and don’t tend to understand the core traditions of English football, such as drinking twenty pints of beer in a night. Few Latin Americans adjust easily to English football.


Instead of Latin Americans, English clubs traditionally bought Scandinavians. On average, Scandinavians are worse footballers than Latin Americans, but they are very familiar with English, cold weather and twenty pints of beer.

The point that the authors, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, had set out to make is that players cannot simply be seen as merchandise and transferring players from club to club and country to country is not as simple as buying the best players and expecting them to perform.

Players, as obvious as it sounds, are people and the way that they are able (or unable) to adapt to a new culture, country and climate has a statistically proven effect on their performance.

The conclusion that Kuper and Szymanski had come to is that in the game of soccer, what happens off the field is crucial to what happens on the field.

This year, Australia and New Zealand share the privilege and responsibility of being the host nations for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

In February of this year, a lead-up tournament called The Cup of Nations was held in three different locations across New South Wales as an almost teaser to the main event. The six-match tournament included the national women’s teams from Spain, Jamaica, the Czech Republic and New Zealand, and was organised to simulate the experience of a World Cup, readying the Australian national team, the Matildas, for the real thing.

Much hype was given to how well the Matildas’ coach, Tony Gustavsson, had prepared his team and whether the Australian public would arise to show the support and enthusiasm that this dress rehearsal was meant to encourage. Yet a different drama was playing out on the other side of the world that would eventually make itself known in ours.

Last September, 15 players from the Spanish women’s league withdrew from the running to be selected to play on Spain’s national team. Their withdrawal was a deliberate decision, evidenced by the fact that the 15 players simultaneously sent an email to the Spanish federation with identical wording explicitly stating their desire ‘not to be called up’ for the national team until ‘the situation is resolved’.

The “situation” was not elaborated upon in the email, nor was it detailed to the media or the broader public. The way in which it was referenced in the email, however, indicates that between the Spanish federation and the league of players, the “situation” was well known.

What is known publicly is that three weeks prior to having sent their emails, the 15 women – six of whom played for Barcelona, two of whom played for Manchester United, two for Manchester City, two for Atletico Madrid, two for Real Sociedad and one for Club America – had appealed to the federation’s president, Luis Rubiales, for change. They wanted the head coach, Jorge Vilda, gone.

Speculation around Jorge Vilda being a controlling coach and having heavily contributed to a toxic environment that caused stress and anxiety among his players remains just that — speculation. Not one of the Spanish league players has come forward individually to make a formal allegation. However, despite the fact that over half of the Spanish national team selection did complain to the federation about Jorge Vilda, the federation astoundingly backed the coach and not the players.

The federation released a statement that not only emphasised its lack of support for the players, but cautioned them.

In its statement, the Spanish federation warned:

The [federation] will not allow the players to question the continuity of the national coach and his coaching staff, because making those decisions does not fall within their competences.


...not attending a call from the selection is qualified as a very serious infraction and can lead to sanctions of between two and five years of disqualification.


[The federation] will not summon the players who do not want to wear the shirt of Spain. The federation will only have committed players even if they have to play with youth.

Jorge Vilda has maintained his position as head coach of the national team and the “player mutiny” – as it has come to be known – continues as long this remains unchanged.

Earlier this year, Vilda, who has been coaching the Spanish team since 2015, arrived in Australia for the Cup of Nations tournament with several of the most notable players missing from his squad. Star player Alexia Putellas was injured and unable to play. Her absence, together with the absence of the team’s 15 most senior and therefore most experienced players, did not go unnoticed. The Spanish team, as the federation had forewarned, simply drew from its pool of younger players.

During the tournament, when asked by the Australian press about the boycott and the squad’s missing players, Vilda answered:

“There’s no need to disrespect; we have a great team and your question seems disrespectful.”

The drama around the women’s football league is not unique to the nation of Spain. Recently, the system of abuse that has existed within the American women’s soccer league was finally brought to light and those responsible were brought to account. Four lifetime bans were issued to four coaches across the American national league. Countless women – most of whom have remained anonymous – had made complaints on several different tiers over months and years, including directly to their national federation.

Though the allegations ultimately resulted in fines administered to clubs and sanctions issued to those involved, many were left in shock as to how long the abuse within the league had been tolerated. The four men accused had been employed as coaches for decades by the same league that eventually banned them for life.

The Australian women’s soccer league came under fire in 2019 when former head coach Alen Stajcic was sacked after accusations that he had contributed to a culture of fear among the Matildas. Since then, however, the Australian league has not appeared to be afflicted by the same dissension between players, coaches and governing bodies that has plagued both the Spanish and American leagues.

What the authors of Soccernomics aimed to achieve by highlighting how poorly Latin American players adjust to the English Premier League was just how many transfers are likely to fail because of a player’s problems off the field. The environment, psychological health, physical security and general well-being have a huge impact on a player’s ability to perform. If one unhappy player makes for poor performance, then what impact might a team of unhappy players make and worse yet, an entire league of them?

As national teams from around the world begin to arrive on our shores as the FIFA Women’s World Cup draws near, it is on us to look to our team of players with every intention of supporting them. While the Matildas are a strong team headed by captain and darling of Australian soccer, Sam Kerr, it is imperative that we see beyond what they can achieve for us as athletes representing our nation.

A team may be more than the sum of its parts but a team still comprises individual players — and those players are people, just like the rest of us.

Zayda Dollie is a sports journalist who believes in athlete story-telling, the redemptive power of sport and having female voices heard.

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