Women’s football: Girl power summer
As controversy continues over Spain's female football team, here's the full version of Aug 16's This Week, Those Books. Find out which novel has a heroine who's a bit like Spain's Olga Carmona. Sign up for free at https://thisweekthosebooks.substack.com/ and get the post the day it drops
Welcome to This Week, Those Books, your rundown on books new and old that resonate with the week’s big news story.
The few minutes you take to read this newsletter will make you smarter, faster…guaranteed. This week’s deep dive into fiction and non-fiction books is about the FIFA Women’s World Cup, which wraps up on Sunday, August 20. The suggested books – complete with summary (but no plot-spoilers), quotes and a visceral response – could point you to your next read or sort out your next watercooler convo and/or supper small talk. In short, they are GTK (good to know).
(Links to previous posts are at the end as well as on the website.)
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The Women’s World Cup is winding up looking like a winner. The tournament has been dramatic, racking up record high viewing figures in co-host nation Australia.
No matter which team triumphs, a new champion will be crowned because the US, Germany, Japan and Norway – the only countries to have won the World Cup – are already out.
But more to the point, the once quiet sport of women’s football is finding that it can roar – and that the world is roaring right back.
Some say it’s been a girl power summer. Greta Gerwig’s Barbie oozes box office oomph as the biggest movie of the year so far and Taylor Swift’s Eras tour has been a blowout success.
Alongside the Women’s World Cup, female football is raking in new deals with the US National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) adding new teams in Utah and San Jose next year and former Meta exec Sheryl Sandberg investing $125 million in the latter. And for the second year running, the NWSL’s championship match will air in primetime on CBS in November.
That said, the world of women’s sport can be a hard blue place and not all pink and frilly. Top female footballers can still only dream of the riches earned by even middle-ranking male counterparts. Australia’s Sam Kerr, the world’s best-paid woman player, is said to earn £417,000 at Chelsea. There has been talk of the first £1 million transfer in British women’s football by 2025. For the men’s game it happened in 1979!
Picks for this week include two easy reads – a history of women’s football and a young adult novel about an Argentine girl who has something in common with Spain’s current captain of the women’s team.
Dear Reader, this week reminds me of those books:
A Woman’s Game: The Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of Women’s Football
By: Suzanne Wrack
Publisher: Guardian Faber
Women’s football has weathered some strange times, not least male condescension, outright misogyny and a 50-year ban in Britain. Suzanne Wrack, The Guardian women’s football correspondent since 2017, is acutely conscious of the game’s tumultuous history, challenges and potential.
We learn about the first recorded official women’s football international: May 9, 1881 between Scotland and England in Edinburgh. Organised by a male theatrical entrepreneur, who recruited dancers to play football, both teams wore “high-heeled boots” and cowls, according to The Glasgow Herald. The paper also drily described the game as “rather novel”.
This sense that men have generally been less than charmed by women’s football and women fought the good fight, runs right the way through the book. When Londoner Nettie Honeyball (aka Mary Hutson) launched the first official but shortlived British Ladies’ Football Club in 1895, she wants to prove that “women are not the ‘ornamental and useless” creatures men have pictured”. Through the suffrage movement, football became a form of feminism. During World War I, with men’s leagues suspended, roughly 150 local women’s football teams were established and became enormously popular. Dick, Kerr Ladies FC, for instance, drew a crowd of 53,000 to one of its games. Astonishingly, the high profile of the women’s game earned it a half-century ban by the Football Association, which declared the sport “unsuitable for females”.
The ban was lifted only in 1971 but the game has struggled to gain sponsorship, attention and opportunities on a par with men’s football. Wrack argues that to realise its full potential, the women’s game needs wealthy Premier League clubs to let them play in their stadiums and piggyback on men’s fixtures. But she is clear in the “manifesto” at the end of her book, that the women’s game should not be “a mirror of the men’s” but a more wholesome force for social change.
Incidentally, the book is recommended by an amazing football Who’s Who, including players Megan Rapinoe of the US and Ada Hegerberg of Norway and manager Phil Neville of the UK.
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Like Spain’s captain Olga Carmona, the heroine of this novel has a passion for football and a footballer for an older brother. But there the similarities end. Unlike Carmona, Camila Hassan receives little family support to pursue her interests. But her brother, Pablo, “the Stallion”, is lauded as a hero.
A bio I read somewhere of the author Yamile (pronounced sha-MEE-lay) Saied Mendez says she “is a fútbol obsessed Argentine-American”. Well, she sure knows her football and despite being a mother of five, she also seems to remember what it was like to be 17 and dreaming big dreams. Forbidden dreams.
It might have been easier for Camila to fit in with her parents’ gendered expectations had she not been so gifted a player. Instead, she is forced to deal with the situation with an incessant stream of lies and dissembling.
The story, set in the author’s hometown of Rosario in Argentina, is simply told. It opens with Camila lying to her mother in order to get away and play an important game. Then her team starts to succeed and her own reputation to grow as “La Furia”, the fury on the football field. Camila dreams of getting a US sports scholarship but matters get more complicated when her childhood sweetheart – a footballer with the Italian team Juventus – returns to the town. She realises she has to make her own way and La Furia must be given her due.
In many ways, this is the novel form of the film Bend it Like Beckham and the musical Billy Elliott. Actress Reese Wetherspoon’s review: “This book will set your dreams on fire. . .It’s fabulous.”
“I didn’t do drugs. I didn’t sleep around. Hell, I was seventeen and not pregnant, unlike every other woman in my family. You would’ve thought she’d give me some credit, be on my side, but no. Nothing I did was enough. I was not enough.”
“Scoring a goal is almost like kissing. The more you do it, the more you want. I wanted to keep scoring until it hurt.”