News | Gender Relations - Culture / Media - WM Katar 2022 Breaking Up the Boys’ Club

In neoliberal capitalist football, non-male persons face structural discrimination in every sphere


UEFA Champions League 2020, Juventus Turin vs. Dynamo Kyiv
Mykola Shaparenko (Dynamo Kyiv) gets yellow-carded by Stephanie Frappart, the first woman to referee a Champions League game.  Photo: IMAGO / LaPresse

Words like “diversity” and “empowerment” are meaningless if they promise no improvement in real conditions. What we are witnessing is the conjunction of patriarchal power and the sport of football organized in conformity with the market, the institutionalization of which — in the form of football associations and the professionalization that they bring — is enclosed in the logic of competition under capitalist conditions.[1]

Amidst all the record crowds and the fulfilment of minimum standards like equal pay for male and non-male national teams in the tournament prizes, this may sound confusing: still, for all its facets, football is no safe space. What are the reasons for the structural disadvantage of and discrimination against women and queer people, which are even more prominent in the game of football than in the rest of society?

Lara Schauland is a political scientist who researches the interface between football and civil society.

Raphael Molter is political scientist and writer who works on a materialist critique of football, among other topics.

Translated by Gegensatz Translation Collective.

If football was once a game for all genders, during its institutionalization at the beginning of the last century it obtained its patriarchal character, which continues to be shored up by circles of men and their relations of power and domination.

Women and queer people were only allowed back onto the pitch starting in the 1970s, and not only do they earn significantly less pay than their male colleagues, but they are practically unrepresented in leadership positions off the field. Only 3.7 percent of all managerial positions in European professional football are occupied by women and queer people, and these figures are just the tip of the iceberg of the patriarchal domination of the game, set to reach its next high point in just a few weeks with the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

How Patriarchy Manifests in Neoliberal Capitalist Football

Reports of recurrent sexualized violence in professional football have recently come under the media spotlight. Benjamin Mendy, a player for Manchester City, is under judicial review following eight accusations of rape. This is no isolated case.

A considerable number of professional players are on the list of accused or convicted sex offenders. Cristiano Ronaldo faced rape charges in 2018. His lawyers paid hush money and the case files are apparently sealed. Former Brazilian national team player Robinho received a nine-year sentence for his involvement in a gang rape. Spanish first league player Santi Mina got four years for sexual assault.

As if that weren’t enough, the coaches are also involved in these kinds of cases: most recently, SV Wehen Wiesbaden sacked its youth coach over a sexual assault accusation, while the coach for Paris Saint-Germain’s women’s team has faced similar charges.

The patriarchy is also at home in the stands: in keeping with all expectations, sexualized violence in football stadiums continues to be a major problem. An initial wave of victims’ reports in recent months demonstrates the appalling situation — from sexist insults directed at a Werder Bremen supporter when that team was promoted to the Bundesliga, to the joint storming of the pitch by Nuremberg and Schalke supporters, where a man reportedly grabbed a woman’s crotch and tried to get his hand under her jersey. That these are by no means isolated incidents is also proven by the situation among FC St. Pauli’s biggest group of Ultras, Ultrà Sankt Pauli.

At the end of last year, a group of women and queer people spoke out in solidarity, accusing Ultrà of harbouring and protecting perpetrators and ignoring the problem. The group, one of Germany’s biggest left-wing fan scenes, is now going through another process of self-examination, one that permits conclusions to be drawn about conditions in other fan scenes and ultras groups. On top of factors that have already been recognized within antifascist structures — informal power hierarchies and a readiness to use violence — the ultras groups’ even higher male contingent obviously promotes sexism and sexualized violence.

The process within the group was concluded over the 2022 summer break, and a public update on the situation was published on Ultrà’s website: their aim is now to promote “explicit networking among female ultras”, to raise consciousness with an anti-discrimination working group, and to strengthen structures for promoting awareness in the stadium and beyond.

But the problem of patriarchal football cannot only be solved with prevention strategies and the sanctioning of perpetrators. Rather, the focus needs to be on the enabling structures within football itself, and the ways that neoliberal capitalist, patriarchal football operates.

There are two main drivers that go hand in hand and, to a certain extent, mutually reinforce each other. On the one hand, there is a “hegemonic masculinity”, as described by the Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell, and on the other hand, the ongoing processes of commercialization of the game, which have determined women and queer people’s roles within this system.

The Alliance between Patriarchy and Capitalist Football

Raewyn Connell has worked extensively on the concept of masculinity. She defines four basic patterns according to which men relate to each other: hegemony, subordination, complicity, and marginalization. It is almost immediately obvious that all of these patterns can be encountered in the football context — whether among professional footballers and in their sporting environment, in FIFA and the German Football Association’s oligarchic and undemocratic internal structures, or among more or less organized groups of fans. Connell describes how men behave hegemonically when they exclude or subordinate women, queer people, or men who are considered inferior, and thereby shore up their own dominance.

While other areas of life under late capitalism have become zones of struggle in which women and queer people demand participation, football represents one of the last spheres of traditionally hegemonic masculinity. Men dominate football: mainly male fans support teams in the stadium, where the proportion of women and queer people is between 30 and 40 percent at best, and usually even lower in the loudest sections.

Underlying this are the values that football conveys, like fighting spirit, passion, and loyalty, which, when combined with alcohol and violence, produce typical male behaviour. No place for non-masculine people — or, as the Hansa Rostock fan scene puts it in their block rules, which are totally explicit and sexist: “No women in the first three rows.”

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu once argued that, “Women are excluded from all the public spaces, such as the assembly or the market, where the games ordinarily considered the most serious ones of human existence, such as the games of honour, are played out.” Football is precisely one of the places that incarnates hegemonic masculinity even more strongly than many other areas of life. The exclusion of all feminine elements from men’s football correspondingly represents a defensive mechanism of hegemonic masculinity.

It is a matter of giving group members habitual security and thereby being able to compensate for insecurities about male identity. The football stadium and all the spaces associated with it, such as the affiliated pub where televised football is watched, or the fan buses on away game days, represent special zones consolidating power positions within their structures, from which men are able to dominate women and queer people. These places derive their function from their patriarchal usage in the football context and reflect relations and attitudes that are barely questioned.

The Best of Friends: Historical Links between Patriarchy and Capitalist Football

We know that since the beginning of industrialization, with the increasing social importance of gender hierarchy, a division between productive and reproductive labour took place that formed the basis for the alliance between capital and patriarchy. Women and queer people were relegated to their domestic and familial duties and consequently also excluded from the stands and the pitch.

When women and queer people began gradually reconquering the football sphere starting in the early 1970s, the non-male version of the game was still denigrated as ridiculous and aesthetically unpleasant as a way of shoring up the equation between masculinity and football. Masculine football officialdom took note of women’s childbearing function and began to warn of the risks involved in the lightning-fast pandemonium around the leather ball.

We can still observe such tendencies among football officials today, but with football’s liberalization towards its neoliberal form since the beginning of the 1990s, a mutation set in: the search for fresh markets put women and queer people back in neoliberal capitalist football’s cross-hairs, specifically as mere consumers.

New forms of merchandizing were quickly picked out — lots of pink, plenty of glitter. Just a few years ago, both Hamburger Sport-Verein and Hertha BSC tried to boost jersey sales with pink alternate jerseys, ideologically packaged with talk of finally attracting calmer, more peaceful spectators to stadiums. This kind of talk also cropped up in connection with the 2022 European Women’s Championship in England.

New markets or not, neither clubs nor football associations — the institutions that actually hold power in the sport — have ever done anything more than this for genuine equality, and they work both institutionally and culturally to reproduce one of the biggest defensive fronts for hegemonic masculinity.

The exclusion of women and queer people from football is obviously systematic. It serves to shore up masculine hegemony as well as the patriarchal maintenance of power within capitalism and its traditional division of labour. Neoliberal football, in this sense, cannot and does not want to offer equal participation. Should we therefore abandon the game? No.

From a socialist perspective, football is an important sphere wherein solidarity and community come together. The space of the stadium brings together people from different classes in a way that is barely seen elsewhere. Football offers a realm that aggregates interests and where conflicts are played out.

Political scientist and historian Georg Spitaler thus pleaded “for a sport that continues to provide a venue for the ritualized enactment of social antagonisms, but that abandons any masculine libido dominandi, the desire to dominate, that accompanies violence, racism, chauvinism, and homophobia in football — as well as discourses of ‘football as a commodity’, and hence the power-conscious rulers of the football business”.

Football fans must understand the struggle against commerce and capitalization as a struggle for a democratic football, and they must work to unite their struggles. The World Cup in Qatar can provide the appropriate moment for this. Where some only see the latest monstrosity of a market-conformist, corrupt game culture, in Qatar, what has long been understood in theory is becoming visible in reality: international football is making an alliance with a state that systematically breaches international obligations regarding women’s and LGBTQI rights.

In Qatar, a system of male guardianship remains in place, and queer people face draconian repression. This year’s World Cup demonstrates the method: a capitalistically organized sport allying with patriarchy to strengthen itself both financially and culturally. This is why the struggle in football also has to be intersectional: a non-commercial football must be a game without hegemonic masculinity.

The roots of these problems do not lie in the supposedly greedy conduct of a few officials or a few perpetrators in the stands: the causes are capitalistically organized football itself, and its market-oriented institutions. The struggle for equality cannot and must not end with capitalistic sops to concepts like “diversity” and “empowerment” — the sphere of football demands systematic critique!

[1] Raphael Molter Friede den Kurven, Krieg den Verbänden: Fans, Fußball und Funktionäre — Eine Herrschaftskritik, Cologne: PapyRossa Verlag, 2022, p. 41.