It was a eureka moment for the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT). In November the team earned more money – $6.5 million – from its male equivalent reaching the knockout stages of Qatar 2022 than it did from winning its own World Cup tournaments in 2015 and 2019.
However, for other national women’s teams the fight over equal pay and treatment rages on.
So much so that disconsolate players on some top-ranked teams are trying to take power into their own hands and use the upcoming Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, which kicks off on July 20, as leverage.
In recent months, players from Canada, France, and Spain – teams that are ranked in the world’s top 10 – have confronted their federations’ perceived lack of support.
Last month, the Canadian Women’s National Team attempted to boycott the SheBelieves tournament hosted by the USWNT in the US in February, but resumed training after the sport’s governing body Canada Soccer threatened legal action.
Meanwhile France and Spain could be without a number of leading players for the Women’s World Cup after they stepped away from national team selection.
Playing in a World Cup is the pinnacle of every soccer player’s career. Yet these players and teams risk sacrificing an opportunity that only comes around every four years to fight for what they view as respect of future generations of players.
We’ve been here before. The USWNT went on strike before winning gold at the 1996 Olympics, and would go on strike again before the 2000 Olympics.
USWNT great Brandi Chastain, who won the Women’s World Cup in 1999, told CNN there’s always been “a lot of systematic, cultural, and societal bias” in women’s soccer.
“It’s not that we want the equal pay because we want the money, it’s we want the treatment that humans expect and deserve,” said Chastain, who scored the winning penalty shootout kick to win the 1999 Women’s World Cup for the USWNT. She then tore off her shirt and fell to her knees in celebration – which has been called one of the most iconic moments in sports history.
The Canadian players have contrasted their treatment with the Canadian Men’s National Team, who played in the 2022 World Cup, saying that they “expect and deserve nothing less than to be treated equally and fairly and to have our program – and our World Cup preparations – funded appropriately.”
The reigning Olympic champions said in a statement announcing their strike last month that their future success is being “compromised by Canada Soccer’s continued inability to support its national teams.”
“We are tired – tired of constantly having to fight for fair and equal treatment,” the statement reads. “This lack of support threatens to reverse the progress we’ve made as a soccer nation and to send us back to obscurity.”
After they were forced to end their strike at the SheBelieves Cup, the players protested by wearing their practice jerseys inside out to hide the Canada crest. Before each game they wore bright purple shirts that said, “Enough is Enough.”
“We’re not backing down, we are going to keep the message out there until things change,” team captain Christine Sinclaire told media during the tournament.
Days later Canada Soccer’s president Nick Bontis resigned saying, “I have been one of the biggest proponents of equalizing the competitive performance environment for our Women’s National Team,” but acknowledged “this moment requires change.”
In a joint statement, the women’s and men’s team called Bontis’ resignation “one necessary step to ensure the future success” of their programs, and the “survival and growth of soccer in Canada for generations to come.”
They said the next president must share both the women’s and men’s teams’ commitment to ensuring they have “the resources and support they need to compete on the world stage.”
The same day the joint statement was released, Canada Soccer announced an interim funding agreement with the Women’s Team for 2022, saying the deal mirrors the men’s team’s terms which includes “per-game incentives and results-based compensation.”
On Thursday, Canada Soccer released details of collective bargaining agreements (CBA) which it said had been first proposed to the men’s and women’s teams last June.
“If accepted by the Player Associations, the collective bargaining agreements will pay both National Teams the same amount for playing a 90-minute match and both National Teams will share equally in competition prize money,” said Canada Soccer on its website.
Sinclair, Janine Beckie, Sophie Schmidt, and Quinn began testifying about Canada’s soccer’s pay equity issues in front of the Parliamentary Heritage Committee also on Thursday.
“We feel quite disrespected by the way they went about their business this afternoon,” said Beckie.
“We believe what was talked about in good-faith bargaining between our players association and [Canada Soccer] should have stayed between the players association and the Canadian soccer association.
“And there were terms and numbers and pieces within their statement today that has not even been communicated to us. So that was a bit of a shock to us.”
Meanwhile, three players on the French squad recently removed themselves from selection, refusing to play for the team’s “current system.”
In an Instagram post last month, France team captain Wendie Renard said she was stepping back to preserve her mental health.
“It’s a sad but necessary day to preserve my sanity. It’s with a heavy heart that I’m sending you this message to inform you of my decision to take a step back from the French team. Unfortunately I won’t be doing this World Cup in these conditions,” Renard’s post read.
The 32-year-old Renard has played for the national team since 2011, earning 142 caps for her country, and has been the backbone of France’s defense. However, France coach Corinne Diacre stripped Renard of the captaincy shortly after taking over the team in 2017.
“I love France more than anything,” Renard’s post said, “I’m not perfect, far from that, but I can no longer support the current system far from the expectations of the highest level.”
Subsequently Renard’s teammates Marie-Antoinette Katoto and Kadidiatou Diani announced they were also suspending their participation with the French national team.
Both of them attributed their decision to Renard’s statement and cited French management as the reason for putting their international careers on hold. Their announcements included the intent to return to the team once the “necessary changes are applied.”
The French Football Federation (FFF) immediately responded that they had taken note of the players’ statements, saying the organization “would like to point out that no individual is above the institution of the French team.”
In a statement to Agence France-Presse on Wednesday, Diacre said she had been the target of a “disgraceful media outburst.”
The coach of the fifth ranked side said she was “completely determined to carry out my job and, above all, to do France proud at the next World Cup,” which begins for les bleus against Jamaica on July 23 in Sydney.
However, the next day the FFF fired Diacre just four months before the Women’s World Cup because of “irreversible” issues, the federation announced.
In a statement posted online the FFF said after receiving a report commissioned by the interim president Philippe Diallo the federation came to the decision to part ways with Diacre.
“The numerous hearings conducted have made it possible to establish a very significant gap with the players in the management team and highlighted a discrepancy with the requirements of the very high level.”
“This gap has reached a point of no return, which is detrimental to the interests of the national team,” the statement read.
The mental health of a number of Spanish women’s players is also an issue, with as many as 15 apparently sending emails to Spain’s Soccer Federation (RFEF) in September last year, requesting not to be summoned to the national team until there was “an improvement in the performance of the group.”
The RFEF quoted the emails as saying, “the current situation generated affects ‘significantly’ their ‘emotional state’ and their ‘health’ and that, ‘as long as it is not reversed,’ they resign from the Spanish national team.”
The RFEF responded they would not “allow the players to question the continuity of the national team and its coaching staff,” saying “this fact has gone from being a sports issue to a matter of dignity.”
The players issued a rebuttal – calling out the RFEF for misrepresenting the contents of the email and giving further clarification through a statement on social media posted by players Alexia Putellas and Ona Batlle – that they never called for the removal of their coach, Jorge Vilda, who has been with the team since 2015.
“We have never requested the coach’s cessation as has been said. We understand that our job is not, under any circumstances, to choose somebody for that position,” their statement said.
“We wanted to express in a constructive and honest way what we consider can be an improvement in the performance of the group.”
The statement acknowledged that their decision will penalize their professional careers, and added that getting to where they are as a program took “lots of years of effort for a lot of people.”
For the sake of improvement the players said they chose to absorb the risk – “to be able to make progress in a professional and powerful project and ambition for the present and future generations.”
Amid this impasse, Vilda has selected 15 new players to join the Spanish side in their preparation for the Women’s World Cup. The current squad has “maximum enthusiasm and unconditional commitment,” Vilda said in February. “We really want to make history.”
Years prior to the French and Spanish players’ protests, Ada Hegerberg, one of the world’s leading women players, refused to play for the Norwegian national team.
Renard’s announcement on social media elicited an immediate supportive comment from Hegerberg, her Olympique Lyonnais teammate, saying “With you!”
Hegerberg won the first ever Ballon d’Or for women and was named UEFA’s Best Women’s Player in 2016. Her boycott lasted five years from 2017 to 2022, naming issues related to gender inequality at the Norwegian Football Federation (NFF) as part of the reason for her protest.
Hegerberg faced backlash from the federation for missing the 2019 Women’s World Cup, but she’s said she felt “mentally broken” from her experiences with the Norwegian National Team, and was frustrated with the handling of women’s soccer in the country.
Her strike was successful in bringing attention to the issues within the federation and fueling change, as the NFF introduced equal pay at the end of 2017.
Men and women now receive the same financial compensation for representing Norway following an agreement that doubled the remuneration pot for women from 3.1 million Norwegian kroner ($330,739) to six million kroner ($640,150).
In an article Hegerberg wrote for The Players Tribune in 2018, the Norwegian said she could “speak for hours about equality, and what needs to change in football, and in society as a whole. But in the end, everything comes back to respect.”
USWNT forward Alex Morgan also commented on Renard’s post showing her support.
Morgan’s team just won the battle for equal pay in 2022, and though the legal battle she and her teammates faced lasted six years, the team’s fight for equality started back in the 90s.
Chastain, who was involved with both of the USWNT boycotts in the 90s, has remained glued to the women’s game and went on to coach after retiring.
She continues to fight for the next generation of players, and tells CNN “we’re trying to debunk the reasons why we can’t play and the reasons why we can, and why when we do we deserve to be on that equal platform.”
Canada’s coach Bev Priestman called the latest wave of feuds between players and their federations the “natural evolution of the women’s game,” saying it’s “probably a natural course that’s going to happen around the world.”