The Women's World Cup is a beacon of hope in a sport that lost its way
On Tuesday night Scotland beat Jamaica 3-2 at Hampden in the team’s final match before jetting off to the World Cup and, for once, the reaction to a Scottish game was overwhelmingly positive.
Social media was full of enthusiastic reviews, including from people that hadn’t been to a game before, while the national stadium boasted of a record 18,555 attendance for a women’s game.
SNP MP Hannah Bardell, a longstanding fan of the game, probably summed up fans’ feeling in describing coach Shelley Kerr and the women’s national team as “a huge inspiration”, before adding, somewhat optimistically, “Bring on the World Cup!”
Of course, this was only a friendly and Scotland will face tougher opponents when they head to France in the next few days, but the positivity surrounding the women’s team is contagious. For longsuffering Scotland fans, even the chance to travel to a tournament will be a welcome one.
When Steve Clarke, the new coach of the men’s team took over he made a point of identifying the need to emulate Kerr’s success, and it’s hard to miss contrasts between the men’s and women’s games. In fact, just 24-hours after the startling sight of Scottish fans actually enjoying a game of football, the world was treated to the men’s Europa League final – the second most prestigious club game in the world – held in Azerbaijan, in a 60,000 capacity stadium, of which 48,000 were reserved for corporate sponsors.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) describes Azerbaijan as holding an “appalling human rights record”, with President Ilham Aliyev recently elected for a fourth term in elections that international observers found lacked competition, and “took place in a restrictive political environment and under laws that curtail fundamental rights and freedoms.”
At least 43 human rights activists, journalists, political and religious activists remain wrongfully imprisoned, according to HRW, while dozens more have been detained, are under criminal investigation, have faced harassment and travel bans, or fled Azerbaijan.
Meanwhile Arsenal, one of the finalists, were unable to take one of their players, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, because as an Armenian, and with Azerbaijan and Armenia technically still at war, the club did not feel his safety can be guaranteed. In fact, the build-up to the match even saw fans stopped so local officials could check their shirts didn’t bear his name.
So there we are. Governing body UEFA made 12,000 tickets available for fans in a major final in a stadium with space for over 60,000, in a country with a horrendous human rights record which cannot guarantee the safety of one of the players.
But this is not a problem limited to club football. It’s a problem that follows UEFA, and indeed FIFA, wherever it goes. The men’s World Cup in Qatar is similarly compromised, amid reports that the major construction projects needed to prepare a country with next to no footballing infrastructure have seen repeated human rights abuses, including forced labour.
Qatar’s penal code does not criminalise domestic violence or marital rape, while it also punishes ‘sodomy’ with one to three years in prison. And the bidding process to host the tournament? You guessed it, mired in reports of corruption.
And maybe hosting the tournament will somehow lead to an epiphany among the ruling family of Qatar. But, more likely, the tournament will be an exercise in sports washing, with the regime using the tournament as a means of laundering its reputation.
It’s a horrible situation for fans, conflicted between watching a sport they love, and being complicit, however indirectly, in a host of human rights abuses.
The women’s game, in contrast, is a beacon of hope, despite years of being deliberately suppressed by the men in charge. Of course it’s still run by UEFA, and as it grows in popularity and reach, sponsors will follow. So too may regimes looking for the opportunity to clean up their reputation.
But, in the meantime, Scotland is off to France, under the rallying call ‘our girls, our game’. And regardless of how they get on, that’s something to celebrate.