Alex Stewart continues his look into language and football, and what the sport as a whole can learn from the USMNT…
The World Cup was a humdinger, wasn’t it? The James turn and volley, the beautifully unexpected performances of teams like Costa Rica and Algeria, that five one shellacking of the indolent Spanish, the heroics of hirsute Tim Howard. That last performance, which inflamed the hearts of American fans neutrals and alike, as he almost single-handedly kept the considerably-less-marauding-than-they-ought-to-have-been Belgians at bay (ok, as a keeper he used both hands and, indeed, his feet, but you know what I mean), similarly scorched Twitter: memes were born and heroics celebrated.
And many with the following appended: #USMNT — the United States Men’s National Team. A touch cumbersome, as social signposting goes, though, for the blood-and-thunder sports fans of the US, comfortingly pugnacious, even bellicose, more Special Forces unit designation than handy football acronym. And the abbreviation is a lot more interesting (and important) than simply be an easy way to navigate oneself towards another Howard stopping a meteorite Photoshop job.
Here, we take a pleasingly sweeping digression, though please bear in mind the above because I’ll return to it later and hopefully, you will see what I mean.
So, here is a list of things to be angry about: Ched Evans; the treatment of Sian Massey in the banter-filled saliva-maws of Keys and Gray; the atavistic John Cummings of Northumbria’s Football Association and his reductive home economics lesson; Blatter, head of a corpulent demagoguery, advocating “pretty” female footballers playing in “more feminine clothes…tighter shorts.”
Stretching back ten years, a ten years in which some (though not enough) progress has been made to bring men and women to an equal level (and that, to me, is what matters: a pure and unarguable equality of the sexes, just as with all other ways humanity falls into various Venn diagrams of race or orientation or wealth or class or whatever; anything else is just wrong), football has resolutely stuck to a path of meandering misogyny. I say meandering, not simply because I like the word or the alliteration (I feel I have to defend the choice because of a seeming oxymoronic juxtaposition with ‘resolutely’) because football, while sticking to sexism, has found new and innovative ways to express just how wrong-headed and unpleasant it can be (fwiw, I don’t see sexism as being football’s only ill and I’m happy to recognise that there is a cavalcade of corruption, bribery, violence, homophobia, racism, and various other things going on).
Now, a sociologist might argue that there are deeply ingrained reasons why football speaks of itself as a MAN’S game and why some people feel it should remain so, reasons of the game’s origins in socialised intra-village conflict, its growth in the male public schools of England, its association with laddish violence as a means of expressing repressed emotions (especially in the 1970s and 80s). Indeed, that sociologist may be right, insofar as why football sees itself that way. And its how football speaks about itself that matters.
My last column here looked at language and how important it is in terms of sub- or unconsciously shaping the way we think about things. And here, we can at last return to Tim Howard’s beard, or rather, #USMNT. Because it’s the ‘M’ that I like, you see: men’s. The US may be the only national football team in the world that designates itself thus (please, correct me if I’m wrong, but a quick Google-wander didn’t dredge up any evidence to the contrary). Every other national team is just the national team, if it’s played by people with penises, and the Women’s (National) Team, or worse still Ladies, if it’s played by people with vaginas. This naturally asserts the hegemony of football players with penises and entrenches the order that says players without penises don’t play football; they play Women’s Football. It’s somehow a different beast, a withered branch on the glorious vine of our beautiful game, a sop to the fact that sometimes ladies want to run around and get mucky but, for fuck’s sake, it’s not real football.
We know this because, if it were real football, we wouldn’t have to suffer the ignominious gendered epithet that accompanies every team of the female persuasion. Now, if that isn’t institutional sexism I do not know what is. And this is why the USMNT’s choice of name is so excellent. Because it merely demarcates that one national team is comprised of men and one of women. There is no judgement, no bias, just a simple statement of fact. Contrast that, if you will, to effectively everyone else (with the caveat above about the extent of my research), which makes it clear that football culture believes that the true footballing spirit of a nation must come with gonads attached.
In fact, the US men’s team is so named because their countrywomen have been so successful throughout their history, playing a refreshingly large role in popularising the sport amongst both sexes. As such, on a global scale, it was fitting that Pele—the original soccer super star whose arrival at New York Cosmos was meant to turn a super power onto the sport—included USWNT teammates Mia Hamm and Michelle Akers in his list of the 125 greatest living footballers in 2004, the only women to be featured.
Language is as insidious as it is wonderful and powerful. The repetitious ingraining of this gendered distinction occurs every time we refer to football and/or women’s football. And, because of the pre-existing sexism of football culture, this reflexive spiral means that women’s as an adjective comes, even if it’s only on the subconscious level (and I use only with a little bit of sick in my mouth about the minimisation of that term; this stuff is important), to mean worse, weaker, less able. Attitudes harden as the reverberative quality of language enforces not only gender distinctions but also negativity and judgement. It’s all part of the same ‘pink-and-shrink’ spectrum that generated the ‘Bic for Her’ pen or female shaving devices that are designed to be comparatively weak and insipid (and pink) when compared to their male counterparts (think about stubble versus leg or pubic hair, and go figure).
Now, I’m not saying that football causes sexism, because that would be stupid. But, and remember this is set alongside that list that started with Ched Evans above, football is one of those things around which men, and particularly young men or children, coalesce. Group activities build social bonds and enforce social attitudes, especially among peers. Men have a responsibility to teach their children or younger brothers or kids they coach or whoever else to not be sexist pricks and, let us be clear about this: football is not helping. And there’s no reason at all that it cannot make a simple change that would set a powerful precedent. The USMNT has done it: why can’t everyone else?