Sports

Australian Women’s Soccer Team Fights For Respect, Goes On Strike

CREDIT: AP Photo/Gero Breloer

Australia's Kyah Simon, center, celebrates with teammates during the 2011 Women's World Cup.

After several months of negotiations failed to produce a new collective bargaining agreement ensuring better pay and higher quality training, the Australian women’s soccer team decided they’d had enough. This week they went on strike.

“For the past two months the players have been unpaid and have made every attempt to reach an agreement that gives the women’s game a platform for growth,” goalkeeper Lydia Williams said. “This is about the future of Australian football. We want to establish football as the sport of choice for Australian women, and we want to be one of the best nations in the world.”

On Wednesday, the Matildas announced that they were pulling out of their upcoming U.S. tour, which was scheduled to take place later this month, due to the refusal of the Football Federation Australia (FFA) to address their concerns.

“The players feel they have been left with no option other than to take this course of action,” Adam Vivian, head of the Professional Footballers Australia (PFA), the sport’s union, said in a statement, adding that “the offer from the FFA was simply unacceptable.”

In an interview with The Women’s Game, Vivian said that the players had a full-time work load heading into this summer’s Women’s World Cup but were only given part-time pay. Not only are they seeking adequate compensation for their work and the necessary training conditions to compete at the highest level, but they also want other workplace protections like a pregnancy policy and basic health and safety standards.

For one American women’s soccer pioneer, the Matildas’ unified stand for equitable treatment is reminiscent of similar action she and her teammates were forced to take. “It was like flashbacks to 20 years ago,” Julie Foudy — former captain of the U.S. Women’s National Team, World Cup champion, Olympic gold medalist, current ESPN and espnW analyst — told ThinkProgress. “We were having the same discussion in 1995-1996, saying, look we appreciate that you want us to train full time but we can’t live on $10 a day. We just want what’s fair.”

The Matildas made an impressive run at this summer’s World Cup, eventually losing in the quarterfinals to Japan, which gives the players even more leverage to ask for things they need to be competitive with the top teams.

“They were well received, people loved how they were fighting, how they played. I thought they were really good but then they would die about the 75th minute of the game,” Foudy, who worked as an analyst throughout the tournament, remarked. “Against the U.S., they couldn’t stay with them in the second half and that is a consequence, to me, of the training.”

Pay disparity was on display during their World Cup run, as well. The Matildas were each paid $500 Australian ($351 USD) in match fees for the games leading up to their round-of-16 appearance — the first time an Australian team won a World Cup knockout game. Their male counterparts make $7,500 ($5,266 USD) for the same feat, ABC Australia reported in June.

On top of game fees, the players were paid just $21,000 Australian ($14,475 USD) a year, Vivian told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio this week.

Foudy said she reached out to the Matildas as soon as she heard about the strike, to offer support, solidarity, and the experience of someone who has taken a similar stand and seen the benefits. Her team’s decision to band together in the mid-90s paved the way for women’s soccer in the U.S. to be “light years ahead” of several other countries in terms of pay, training conditions, and player development, Foudy said. In the ensuing decades, other federations started to catch up, and this year’s World Cup showed the payoff for countries like England and France making the decision to invest in their women’s teams.

(As for who guided Foudy and her teammates? That was none other than tennis legend and barrier-breaker Billie Jean King.)

Though funding disparities between men’s and women’s soccer are complicated, stark inequity does remain a reality across the globe. “No one cares enough to listen to them in so many of these countries,” Foudy said. “It’s similar to ours 20 years ago; you had to go on strike. They didn’t care. You don’t want to do it and it becomes your last resort but you get so frustrated by the fact that no one cares.”

The requisite pressure on these federations to invest in the women’s game needs to come from FIFA, the sport’s governing body, Foudy said. During the Women’s World Cup, FIFA announced $22 million in funding over the next four years to foster the development of women’s soccer across a wide spectrum of objectives — from encouraging participation at a young age to bringing more women in to the highest levels of the sport.

While the funding boost is a positive development on its face, it’s a paltry sum considering the fact that FIFA brought in $2 billion last year and has committed to spending $900 million through 2018 on the men’s game. And the total amount it will devote to the women’s game over a four-year span is less than the reported $31 million it spent to make a pro-FIFA propaganda film.

The outcome of the Matildas’ strike, which the FFA condemned, remains to be seen. On Wednesday, the PFA said in a statement that it has “reaffirmed its resolve to reach a solution” to the ongoing dispute with the FFA involving both the Matildas and the Australian men’s team, the Socceroos. As for the two matches the Matildas were scheduled to play in the U.S. — in Detroit, Michigan on September 17 and Birmingham, Alabama on September 20 — the United States Soccer Federation is reportedly looking for a replacement opponent.