How FIFA Has Hurt Women's Soccer

Perhaps women's soccer will gain a more prominent role within FIFA now that Sepp Blatter has resigned as president.

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Jun 5 2015, 2:20pm

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The U.S. Women's National Team wasn't exactly sad about FIFA President Sepp Blatter's resignation earlier this week.

"Ding dong the witch is dead. Daddy got his hand caught in the cookie jar," wrote Megan Rapinoe, a midfielder on the U.S. women's national team, on Twitter. "Hallelujah!" wrote former World Cup winning player Julie Foudy.

This Saturday the Women's World Cup starts in Canada, but unless you really care about women's soccer you probably didn't know that the opening match between Canada and China will kick off at 6 p.m. ET or that it should be a good one. And Blatter, despite seeing himself as the "godfather" of women's soccer, is partly to blame for that.

Read More: How FIFA Killed the Women's World Cup Lawsuit

FIFA has monopolized headlines for the last two weeks with stories of corruption and bribery in the men's game, but little has been said about how those same officials have belittled and ignored the women's side of the sport—all while taking credit for booming female participation in soccer around the world. FIFA Secretary General Jérôme Valcke even cancelled his trip to the opening games in Canada so he could spend his time dealing with the pressing matter of whether or not he was involved in $10 million worth of bribes.

"There have been a few advancements at FIFA, but not nearly fast enough," said Julie Foudy, a member of the 1991 and 1999 U.S. teams that won the Women's World Cup, who now does commentary for ESPN.

So who's fault is it that women's sport doesn't make as much money or get as much international attention as the men's?

"There are millions of girls playing soccer and tons of people buying shoes," said Foudy. "That's a bad business decision if you don't develop that."

In fact, that's the exact same argument Foudy and the women's team had with the U.S. federation back when she was playing, she said. Now, the American women are at least as well known as their male counterparts—in no small part thanks to Foudy and her teammates, and the exciting 1999 World Cup final that set viewership records for a woman's sporting event. U.S. stars Hope Solo and Alex Morgan are now believed to have endorsement deals worth seven figures. And FOX has said that ad sales for games this month are booming, especially after a splashy marketing blitz.

Print out your own Women's World Cup bracket here. Bracket courtesy of Eight by Eight magazine.

But it's all relative. The most recent men's World Cup made nearly $4.5 billion for FIFA. The last women's tournament, in 2011, was considered a "financial success" when it brought in just about $11 million. The only good thing that can be said about the lack of attention and money in the women's event is that there's been little reason yet for bribery or corruption.

Of course, that could all be different if the women just wore tighter shorts.

In 2004, Blatter famously suggested that if the female players wore shorter spandex shorts, the sport would be more popular. "Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball," he said.

"They could, for example, have tighter shorts. Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so, and they already have some different rules to men—such as playing with a lighter ball. That decision was taken to create a more female aesthetic, so why not do it in fashion?"

The women actually do not play with a lighter ball.

At 2013's FIFA congress, at the same time that he was pushing to add a lone female to the FIFA executive board, Blatter introduced one of the candidates as "good-looking" and urged women to get involved by saying, "Any ladies in this room? Say something ladies! You are always speaking at home. Now you can speak here."

It's not that his instincts weren't in the right place...maybe. Or that he was 100% wrong. It's just that Blatter's demeaning way of speaking to and about women reflected a belief that female players were a sideshow who should be happy for any bone they were thrown.

Alex Morgan is pretty recognizable...except Sepp Blatter once didn't recognize her at a FIFA awards function. Photo by Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Julie Foudy, was attending the 1998 men's World Cup draw in Marseilles when Blatter introduced her in French. Since she doesn't speak French, it was only when she came off-stage that a couple women working for FIFA said they were upset that he'd introduced her as having "nice legs," without mentioning any of her athletic accomplishments.

"He doesn't even recognize they're sexist," said Foudy of Blatter's comments. "The list just goes on and on."

Blatter also doesn't recognize female players—literally.

Alex Morgan, who has graced the covers of Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and a number of billboards throughout New York in recent weeks, told TIME that Blatter and other FIFA officials didn't even know who she was at the 2012 FIFA World Player of the Year event—the very same event at which she was one of the honorees. "That was pretty shocking," she said.

Abby Wambach, the highest all-time goal scorer for the U.S., told Sports Illustrated she was at that same event when Blatter mistook her wife for the famous Brazilian player Marta. Besides having brown hair, the two do not look alike.

FIFA, is supposed to be the governing body for all players, but has been consistently dismissive of its female players.

Games in Canada this month will be played on artificial turf, an inferior playing surface that has never—and would never—be used in international men's games due to the impact it has on players as they slide, fall, and run. Female players attempted to bring their concerns to FIFA officials and then attempted to compromise so that some of the games could be played on grass. Eventually, 84 players brought a lawsuit earlier this year. But, still, FIFA officials had no interest in addressing or remedying the situation, effectively forcing the players to drop the suit.

It's not that Canada didn't say it was going to use artificial turf from the beginning. It did. And after Colombia dropped out of the bidding process, there was no option except to give the tournament to Canada. Estimates put the cost of converting the fields to grass at around $3 million—chump change for an organization like FIFA. Chump change that Blatter refused to pony up.

Chump change can also describe women's prize purses.

The winning men's team at the 2014 World Cup earned $35 million, paid to that country's federation. Second place took home $25 million. Just for making it out of the group stage, each of those 16 teams got $8 million. (The men's teams also have to pay a $1.5 million participation fee. Call it the cost of success.)

How much do the women earn? The total prize purse for this year's tournament for everyone is $15 million—an increase from $10 million in 2011. Foudy estimates that about 75% of the players, outside of the powerhouses like Germany and the U.S., don't even earn salaries and "really have to scrape by," she said.

And don't expect the pay to be equitable any time soon, said FIFA Secretary General Valcke. At least, not until the Women's World Cup starts making more money.

His point—and it's not a totally inaccurate one—is that the men's World Cup funds all of FIFA's other tournaments and development programs, so of course it would take precedence. And Blatter's view of himself as the "godfather" of women's soccer isn't entirely misguided either; it's just mostly misguided.

Blatter pushed to expand the field of teams at this year's Women's World Cup to 24, previously from 16 and before that from 12 teams. Eight of those teams this year are entirely new to the World Cup, and they arguably wouldn't have been able to develop without FIFA funds. Although they might have developed faster if more than 15% of the money given to a member country was required to go towards the women's side of the sport. There are now women's U17 and U20 World Cups—neither of which existed when Foudy played. And a woman was finally elected in 2013 to the FIFA Executive Board. Progress is being made, just not enough.

"It's just not at the pace I think the game deserves and the women deserve," said Foudy. "How many years have we wasted?"

Now that Blatter's gone maybe, hopefully not many more.