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07th Jul 2019

Women’s football is on the rise, but it already has its transcendent icons

These transcendent icons are doing as much as anyone to get people taking about women's football, and no one could hope for greater role models.

Nooruddean Choudry

I don’t know what effect these women have on young girls around the world.

When it comes to women’s football, I am that most detested type of football supporter: the fair-weather fan. In fact, I don’t really fulfil the definition of ‘supporter’ at all. The newly formed Manchester United WFC are on my doorstep and I haven’t been to a single game. I’m only taking an interest now because there’s a World Cup on, it’s on the telly, and everyone’s talking about it.

That’s not me proudly bragging about my ignorance, more where I’m coming from as a casual observer. The truth is, I’m not a huge football fan full-stop. I obsess over my club team, but find it hard to watch any match as a neutral. I can’t stay interested as a spectator for the pure love of the game. In fact, fuck that. Like most people, I have to be emotionally invested in some way.

Usually that’s due to love; often it’s because of hate. Occasionally it’s even down to the arbitrary parameters of national borders. Bottom line is, you need a reason to care. And whether it’s sport, movies, books or music, nothing gets you more invested than heroes. Once you’ve found that singular totem of inspiration to pin your dreams on, you’re hooked for life.

Women’s football is still far behind its male equivalent in so many ways. It doesn’t have anything like the same exposure or investment. There is nothing approaching overall parity in pay. Sponsors and media don’t clamber over each other with quite the same fervour. But what it does have, perhaps more than the men’s game, is truly iconic stars worthy of adulation.

These are individuals who, through a combination of athletic prowess, force of personality, social conscience and intangible charisma, are able to transcend sport. In doing so, they not only generate a huge interest in their vocation, but use it as a tool for the greater good. In every sense, they are empowering women in general, as well as spreading the gospel of their game.

Out in France, Ada Hegerberg is of course conspicuous in her absence. Some have characterised the inaugural Ballon d’Or Féminin winner’s two-year exile from the Norway squad as arrogant and even ‘attention-seeking’. In reality it has everything to do with the standards of dignity, respect, resource and value that she demands of the NFF.

During her absence, the Norwegian FA have doubled the amount that it pays female internationals, meaning they now have pay parity with their male counterparts. So does that automatically make Hegerberg’s boycott futile? Fuck no. That neglects the cause and effect of her stance. And in any case, she has always maintained it was about far more than just money.

Suggestions that her absence is led by ego are desperate. If that was the case, she would have waltzed straight back into the fold just before the biggest Women’s World Cup in history, rather than sticking to her principles. As for attention-seeking, she hit the headlines when her Ballon d’Or win was overshadowed by an idiotic DJ. She played the whole thing down when the world was waiting for a melodrama. For Ada, it was about a historic moment in women’s football, not a question of twerking.

The criticism she has received has less to do with her and more to do with a society that perceives any act of strong-mindedness by a woman as being ‘difficult’ – even something as inoffensive as simply removing oneself from a toxic and untenable situation. Even just opting out somehow becomes an act of outright aggression. Hegerberg knows this, as does Megan Rapinoe.

The American has proved her country’s taliswoman in France, as well as something of a global phenomenon. Her fearlessly dismissive “I’m not going to the fucking White House” retort at the very suggestion was explosive enough to trigger Donald Trump and the whole of Fox News. But it is hardly the first time she has riled all the right people by not playing to their rules.

Rapinoe feels like a generational figure. Someone gutsy enough, principled enough and charismatic enough to influence transformative change. She also understands the power of an allied front. In 2016, she showed solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and refused to stand for the national anthem; in 2017, she joined Juan Mata’s Common Goal initiative to donate at least 1% of her salary to charity.

But there’s more to Rapinoe than simply fighting the good fight. It’s the way she fights it. What’s makes her so incendiary to so many people is that a) she is fully aware of her own power, and b) she does it with a smile. Do underestimate that second point. It is massively unnerving to anyone trying to pigeon-hole her into the tired old ‘angry feminist’ tropes when they clearly don’t apply and cannot phase her.

When Rapinoe claims that “I can feel myself and my teammates literally changing the world…” you absolutely belief her. And the way she bears the weight of her sporting peers, the LGBTQ community, women everywhere, and various minority causes with such apparent ease is astounding. She is great, she knows she’s great, and she is so fucking cool with it.

If Rapinoe has the air of someone at the peak of their powers, the aura is far more bittersweet around the great Marta of Brazil. Despite being her US counterpart’s junior by some months, the greatest women’s footballer of all time is consumed by the spectre of her own curtain call. This is her fifth World Cup, and it may well be her last.

Her dread is not a personal crisis. Marta’s place in the history of the world’s fasting growing sport is secure – she has inspired a generation – but that’s simply not enough. The Brazilian fears for the women’s game in her country. It doesn’t have the same support or growing infrastructure of competing nations, and she does not want the flame to die with her.

But talk about raging against the dying of the light. Fuck. Me. If the bright red warpaint she wears on her lips and Go Equal stripes adorning her boots were too oblique for some, Marta followed her nation’s elimination from the competition with a rousing battle cry for the ages. When she uttered “You have to cry in the beginning, so you can smile at the end” with tears in her eyes, it felt Biblical in its power and scale.

In 2018, Marta became a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador for women and girls in sport. She will continue to energise and inspire well after hanging up her boots. Rapinoe is already owning the Leader of the Free World, and she’s only half trying. Hegerberg is only 23 years old and has already proved she can bend the game to her strongest held values. She could be anything.

These transcendent icons are doing as much as anyone to get people taking about the women’s game, and no one could hope for greater role models. Each of them are pioneers in their own way, and none of them are willing to accept the status quo. I don’t know what effect these women have on young girls around the world, but fucking hell they inspire me.