Moments after the Brazilian women’s team had lost to Canada in the Olympic bronze medal match at the Arena Corinthians in São Paulo a touchline reporter approached Formiga, the Brazilian football legend who had just come to the end of her sixth, and at 38 years of age, probably her last Olympic Games.
Understandably she appeared emotional. It could be the end of the Cristiane–Marta–Formiga triumvirate that has been at the forefront of women’s football for the last decade and was almost certainly her last shot at a major international title. But when she spoke Formiga was not focused on her own wonderful story but on the future. Almost pleading with the watching public she said, “Please don’t give up on us”.
To the outside observer it would probably seem slightly strange. Why would she have to implore the country not to give up on them after they had just finished in a respectable fourth place in a competition in which several strong teams had gone out in the earlier stages? Can you imagine one of the players from the US, Sweden or Canada having to do the same?
It is an unfortunate reflection of the esteem in which women’s football is held in Brazil, particularly by those in positions of power in the media, the Brazilian Football Federation and the big football clubs.
Formiga’s plea fell on deaf ears, at least at the CBF (the Brazilian FA). Their first reaction to the disappointment of fourth place at the Rio Games was to withdraw funding for the permanent women’s national team.
Following the model of the US Women’s National Team, a set of players had received a salary directly from the CBF since 2015 allowing them to focus on football full-time to try to improve the performance of the seleção feminina. However, after a poor 2015 World Cup and no medal at Rio 2016 the project was deemed a failure.
It would be impossible to imagine the US Soccer Federation doing the same if the USWNT fail to perform in their next tournament after going out in the quarters in Rio but this is the precarious reality of Brazilian women’s football.
Ana Paula Silva, an anthropologist at the Fluminense Federal University in Rio de Janeiro says that, the CBF “finishing with the [permanent] women’s national team is to discredit and insult women’s football, which already faces huge challenges in a country that sees football as a ‘man’s game’.” The sorts of sexist attitudes Silva is talking about are certainly a huge part of the problem, Brazil is still a country in which macho culture reins.
There is also another cultural factor that has contributed to the withdrawal of these vital funds at this particular time. Brazil is a country obsessed with winning and winners. If you triumph you are a hero, elevated to a deity-like status by the media and the public. If you lose, even if the loss is due to uncontrollable factors such as injury, you are “less than nothing”, as Marta herself said in the days leading up to the Olympics.
This attitude was shown most clearly by the differing reactions to the Judo athlete Rafaela Silva after London 2012 and Rio 2016. After she was defeated in London she was disgustingly racially abused on social media, called a ‘monkey’ by her compatriots. In Rio, however, she took home the gold medal, Brazil’s first of the games, and was held up as a national icon.
Just recently Tim Vickery penned a piece for Australian website SBS about the Brazilian nation’s “perennial need for a villain”, and respected Brazilian Journalist Eliane Brum wrote in El País that “when those who should succeed suffer a defeat, they are punished as if they had betrayed the entire country. It is at this moment that the conflicts appear, and the racism, homophobia and sexism… [of the Brazilian people] explode…. There is no doubt that if [Silva] had lost again, she would once more be a ‘monkey’.”
It is partly owing to this capricious disposition that the women’s football team has had its funding withdrawn at this time. Had they beaten Sweden in the semi-final penalty shootout and guaranteed themselves at least a silver, things could have panned out differently.
There are those, even within the women’s game, that argue that rather than having a permanent national team the focus should be on creating a strong base of national professional football with youth leagues to develop young talent. However, whilst these structures do not exist it is absolutely necessary to maintain the permanent national team to improve, and thus bring more attention to, women’s football in Brazil.
The two things are not mutually exclusive. The CBF, if it so wished, could provide the resources for a permanent women’s national team and provide the conditions for strong domestic championships.
Current coach of the Corinthians/Audax women’s team Arthur Elias says that “the CBF and the São Paulo football federation treat [women’s football] as an amateur game, this makes it difficult to attract fans and sponsors. We’re on the way to professionalization but we’re not there yet.”
Many women who play the game at the highest level domestically struggle to make a living from it. Even Santos, who have one of the highest wage bills out of any women’s team in the country have a salary cap of R$4,000 per month, about £940 at current exchange rates, many athletes earn far less than this.
Taking away the permanent national team, which pays players at least R$9,000 per month, giving them some financial stability, will only encourage more young talent to seek work in other areas where the prospective remuneration is higher and a career far longer.
There is a potentially very large audience for the women’s game in the país do futebol. The average attendance for the women’s seleção’s games at the Rio Olympics was 45,375, which compares favourably with the average of 55,668 who went to watch the men’s games.
TV audiences were also huge for the women’s games during the Olympics, particularly the semi-final against Sweden. This is nothing new, international women’s football games have drawn large television audiences here since they were first broadcast during the 2007 World Cup in China.
Research released by Globo in the week of the Olympic final and semi-final also revealed that ‘women’s football’ was the term most searched on Google in Brazil in those seven days. On the 13th and 16th of August searches relating to women’s football outnumbered those relating to men’s football by five to one.
The reaction to the women’s team from the public was largely positive during the Games, especially after their first two matches which they won comfortably whilst the men’s team struggled to 0-0 draws against Iraq and South Africa. One of the enduring images of Rio 2016 was that of a young boy on his way to a match who had scribbled out the name of Neymar Jr on his shirt and replaced it with that of Marta.
This is not the time for the CBF to reduce or withdraw funding but rather to increase it to build on the interest that was whipped up by a home Olympics. The women’s team has for the past decade far outperformed the financial investment it receives from the football federation but this cannot go on forever. Just like in the men’s game, poor organisation from the CBF will eventually come back to bite them.
The onus also falls on the clubs and mainstream media outlets. It is true that women’s football games in the domestic leagues draw tiny crowds but empty stadiums are a problem that also affects the men’s game. If the big clubs, the television channels and the CBF were more willing to invest time into promoting the women’s game there is potential for crowds and TV audiences to grow exponentially.
The final game of the women’s São Paulo State championship, between Santos and Rio Preto, was broadcast on the Sunday morning following the Olympics on SporTV, one of the biggest sports networks in the country. Far more games of this status are needed on free-to-air television to raise the profile and prestige of domestic tournaments.
The Brazilian people have to play their part as well. If the demand is there, and clearly it is to some extent, the media will be forced into covering games. People must to take to social media to let the broadcasters know that there is an audience waiting to watch the matches. It is only with these audiences the sponsorship money that is so desperately needed will come flowing in.
Conditions appear to be ripe for the beginning of a virtuous cycle of higher audiences, more coverage and increasing revenues but somebody needs to make the first move.
It would be a terrible shame if this opportunity went to waste and at the next major tournament we again see a Brazilian player having to beg for support from the public, and the powers that be, to continue building on the foundations that Formiga and co have worked so hard to lay.