Bend It Like Genders

Looking at a Future for Professional Women’s Soccer

Photo by Amanda Laprade
Graphic by Miriam Brookman

Jorge Sanchez has been a women’s soccer coach at the Canadian Interuniversity Sport and provincial level for over a decade—he’s seen the drastic change the sport has undergone in the new millennium.

“I remember I used to ask people who the player with the most appearances for Canada was,” says Sanchez, coach of Concordia University’s women’s soccer team.

“People would say [Canadian men’s soccer legends Dwayne] de Rosario, or [Bob] Lenarduzzi—everyone just presumed I was talking about men.”

After Sanchez informed his quasi-experimental subjects that it was actually then-appearance leader Charmaine Hooper, their response would be something like: “Well that doesn’t count, that’s women’s soccer.”

But a comment like that probably wouldn’t fly in today’s Canadian soccer climate.

Today, we see stadiums sell out when the national team competes, seen this summer when Vancouver hosted the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football’s Olympic qualifying matches.

Even after an abysmal performance months previous at the Women’s World Cup, it seems like the women’s national soccer team is as popular as ever.

An unprecedented number of people came to see Canada play the United States in the final of that tournament. Over 25,400 in total, selling out the entire lower bowl of BC Place and nearly 23,000 in the semi-final against Mexico—both record numbers for CONCACAF Olympic qualifiers when broken.

“It goes to the strength of where the women’s game is in our country,” said Peter Montopoli, general secretary of the Canadian Soccer Association, in an interview with The Link. “What [the qualifiers show] is that it has a tremendous following compared to any other women’s sport in this country.”

This is in stark comparison to the men’s national team. The last time the Canadian men played on home soil was November in Toronto, where they walloped Saint Kitts and Nevis 4-0—attendance, 10,000.In fact, the highest turnout for a men’s match in 2011 was a friendly one against Ecuador last June, where just 14,000 turned up at BMO Field.

Domestic Sphere

So, is the tide turning to favour the women’s game in Canada?

“I think domestically in Canada, the women’s game is making advances,” said Montopoli. Canada has eight teams in the United Soccer League’s W-League, a women’s professional soccer league that sits second on the women’s North American soccer food chain behind Women’s Professional Soccer.

But even with these teams, it’s no comparison to the marketing machines in the men’s European—or even North American—leagues. Overseas, 30,000 to 60,000 will turn out for the average domestic league game in England, Spain, Italy, and Germany.

“I don’t think it’s any secret internationally; there certainly is more interest on the men’s side,” said Montopoli. “If you look at the financial parameters around it, there’s significantly more investment on men’s professional soccer.”

Financial restrictions are something that holds the Montreal Impact back from creating a women’s team, according to director of communications Patrick Vallée. The Impact has five academy teams for under-21 players, all of which are all-boys squads.

“We’re building a club, and to have a women’s team right now, it’s not a priority. Maybe in a few years,” said Vallée. However he thinks that not having a women’s team isn’t sexist.

“You could say the same thing for the Montreal Canadiens. Why don’t they have a women’s team?” he said. “If you look at the situation right now, it’s crazy all we did for soccer in Montreal. We wouldn’t have the time or resources [for a women’s team] right now.”

Making It Big

Because the women’s game is put on the back burner by major clubs like the Impact, it’s unrealistic for women to make a living playing the sport. Few women can make it a full-time job in Canada, even though most major men’s clubs in Europe have fully functioning women’s teams coinciding with the men’s side.

Regardless, Alexandra Eskenazi, a Canadian player currently in Panama for the 2012 CONCACAF Women’s Under-20 Championship, said many of her teammates hope to make it big.

“All of the girls here aim to make the full national A-team and I’m sure would love to pursue a full-time career in soccer,” Eskenazi said in an email to The Link. But she questioned whether the gap could close between the men and women’s domestic game.

“I don’t know if the women’s game will ever reach the same level of coverage and popularity as the men’s game,” she said. “But if the quality of women’s soccer continues to improve, I think interest in the sport, from a supporter’s perspective, will grow and the demand to watch live games will increase.

“I hope that in 10 years there are more opportunities for women’s players to compete in professional and in a semi-pro environments within Canada,” she said, adding it would provide young girls role models to look up to and try to emulate.

According to Montopoli, however, the CSA’s statistics already show that young girls and women are increasingly getting into soccer. Approximately 35,000 women are registered in a soccer league in Canada, making up 42 per cent of all registered members, men or women, in Canada. But Concordia coach Sanchez is skeptical as to whether there’ll be more opportunities on the horizon for these upcoming women to get paid to play at the domestic level.

“I don’t know if that will ever be the case. A league like that would have to be financially viable, and I don’t see any indication that it would be,” said Sanchez.

Unfortunately, he’s got a point. The WPS, which counts five teams between New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and Atlanta, suspended its 2012 season this past January due to internal legal disputes, a reality that’s put arguably the biggest Canadian soccer star, Christine Sinclair, out of a job.

Uneven Playing Field

Even with financial and marketing restrictions, women are still facing an uphill battle to get people to notice the game. Up until last year, the Canadian women’s national team was in a legal spat with the CSA over pay compensation compared to the men’s team, whose pay would not be divulged.

And more gender inequalities in the game are seen on a much higher level. One only has to look at the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, soccer’s top governing body, and their executive board—25 members, all of whom are men. Men are also dominating coaching positions, according to Eskenazi. Although she thinks it’s not necessarily a bad thing that men coach women, she’d like to see more women coaching, too.

“Unfortunately there is still a lack of qualified women leading the development of the game.”

“There still aren’t enough women who want to commit to making a transition from playing to coaching once they decide to hang up their boots,” said Eskenazi, who doubles up as an assistant coach for Concordia’s women’s team.

The CSA are coming to the rescue when it comes to a lot of these problems, however. It has a mandate to have at least three women on its board of directors. It’s bringing women’s games to smaller towns in Canada, like the up-and-coming friendly match against China in Moncton, NB to expose more people to the game.

They’ve also won the bid for the 2015 Women’s World Cup—something Montopoli thinks is going to give Canadian women’s soccer a bigger boost.

“In 2015, it will be the largest women’s event of any kind,” he said. “To have that in our country, with everyone participating, the game can’t help but grow.”

The future is largely unwritten for women trying to break into a male-dominated domestic league scene, but if Canada’s positive numbers have any indication, there’s no telling what will happen a decade from now.

“I never thought, 10 years ago, that we’d have 20 or 30,000 people in the stands,” said Sanchez. “Maybe we’ll get there eventually.”