This Isn't a Game: The Fight for Equal Pay in Soccer
“Equal Pay!” was the chant that rang through the 2019 Women’s World Cup. Although women players often bring in more money for their soccer or football federations, they earn a just a fraction of their male counterparts’ salaries. Host Nelufar Hedayat learns that soccer is more than just a game — it’s a battlefield for equality. Nelufar talks to sports journalist Shereen Ahmed and footballer Nicole McClure.
Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.
[SOUND OF WHISTLES AND CHEERING]
NELUFAR HEDAYAT, HOST:
My first ever time playing with proper balls on a football pitch. Balls are heavy, that’s a thing I’ve learnt. There’s a lot of running around. The thing I’ve learnt is I’m not as fit as I think I am.
NELUFAR: This is “Course Correction” from Doha Debates.
Each episode we’ll look at one big global problem — and meet the people who are actively working to fix it.
I’m Nelufar Hedayat. And I’m at my local women’s football club in London, trying out for the team.
[SOUND OF WHISTLES]
NELUFAR: Listen, yeah, I’m giving it my best here at the tryouts but…
I am leagues behind these girls. But I’m having fun, right?
NELUFAR: I never was much of a football fan — until I watched the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
BRITISH MALE FOOTBALL ANNOUNCER:
The three-time world champions take on the European champions. Who will be crowned the best team in the world today?
NELUFAR: I got completely swept up in the drama of the game on and off the pitch. During the final game, the stadium suddenly erupted in chanting. That’s nothing new, but it wasn’t the kind of chanting you usually hear at a football match.
CROWD CHANTING IN UNISON:
Equal pay! Equal pay! Equal pay! Equal pay! Equal pay!
NELUFAR: Equal pay.
It felt completely out of place. This was the final of a sports tournament and the fans were calling for socioeconomic change?
I looked into it, and what I found out was shocking.
The U.S. women’s team get paid a lot less than the men’s side, despite being a much more successful team. The U.S. women have won four World Cups. The men haven’t won… any. Last year, they didn’t even qualify.
But the women make only 18 cents on the dollar compared with the men. And if the men were to win a World Cup? Their bonus would be more than four times higher than the women’s bonuses.
So in March 2019, the women’s team sued the United States Soccer Federation over unequal pay and gender discrimination. The trial is set for 2020.
But it’s not just the U.S. women who face discrimination. Around the world, women’s teams are being paid much, much less than their male counterparts — despite their success on the pitch.
So why is women’s football still seen as a lesser sport? And what toll does this take on female footballers? That’s what I’m going to find out today.
I’ll talk to a sportswriter.
For many in the margins, sport has always been inherently political.
NELUFAR: And we’ll hear about what it’s like to actually be a female pro-footballer.
Buckle up for this story! During qualifiers for the 2019 Women’s World Cup we had to wear the men’s kit.
NELUFAR: But first.
[SOUND OF WHISTLES AND A FEMALE COACH YELLING]
Yellow in that corner! Pink in that corner!
NELUFAR: I’ve decided to come down to my local girls’ football team for the tryouts today. There’s about 20, 25 girls here. It’s a chilly summer’s day in Londontown, I won’t lie to you. But there’s no point in spending time looking at and trying to understand football and equality if I’m not going to play it and get involved, so I am about to go out on that pitch and humiliate myself in front of at least 35 people. Let’s go.
If the ball goes out, there’s some more balls here, yeah?
Hiya, I’m Viv.
NELUFAR: Hi Viv, I’m Nel.
VIV: Nice to meet you.
NELUFAR: You all right? Have you got 35 seconds for me?
VIV: Yes, I have.
NELUFAR: You are a busy woman.
VIV: I am, very.
There’s no rest for the wicked.
NELUFAR: There really isn’t.
VIV: I know.
NELUFAR: Viv is the co-captain of the team.
VIV: This is East London Ladies FC. Woop woop!
NELUFAR: She’s been doing her job, training the players, recruiting new ones and competing in tournaments for five years now.
VIV: I just have such a strong passion for the game and I just love watching it. And football’s been a massive part of my life, and I dedicate literally every single day to this club. I literally have one day off in a week. So… but yeah, I enjoy it.
NELUFAR: Looking out on the pitch, I’m definitely nervous and definitely regretting my decision.
NELUFAR: You got a new trainee today.
NELUFAR: I’m applying. I am — I don’t even know the right word to use, that’s why I sound so weird!
VIV: You want to get involved.
NELUFAR: I want to get involved?
VIV: Yeah, you can!
NELUFAR: I’m really — no — never played football.
VIV: OK. You can get involved, you can get involved.
NELUFAR: Back when I was a kid, we all used to kick around a ball together — boys and girls. It was just fun. It was easy, relaxing. Gender didn’t matter.
But around the time we hit puberty, something changed. The boys started taking it really seriously, and the girls became more and more alienated from the sport. The boys were encouraged to play. The girls weren’t. And for the girls, it was a struggle just to find their way onto the pitch.
So for me, just walking onto the pitch was a little intimidating. Luckily, one of the players gave me some guidance.
Just watch what everyone else is doing and take it slow, you don’t have to do it how they do it.
NELUFAR: Yeah, but like how do you kick it? When you’re shooting?
PLAYER: Yeah, either use the side of your foot if you’re close, or your laces here. Just put your foot through it.
[SOUND OF FOOTBALL BEING KICKED]
NELUFAR: OK, the tryouts were hard. A lot harder than I was expecting.
NELUFAR: All right, so, I did my best.
[VIV LAUGHS LOUDLY]
NELUFAR: Should I be offended? Have I made the team? Did I make tryouts? C’mon!
[VIV LAUGHS LOUDLY]
VIV: I’ll have to text you later.
NELUFAR: No, you’re going to ghost me, aren’t you!
VIV: I think maybe you have to start off in development.
[VIV LAUGHS LOUDLY]
NELUFAR: So, I didn’t make the team. Yeah. Well, I kind of knew it, ’cause Viv hadn’t even taken down my cell number, so… I will say this, though: I had a lot of fun.
And I gained a deeper understanding of just how hard it must be for a woman footballer to do their job. It gave me even more respect for all the women out there playing football professionally around the world.
Apart from the game itself, what really caught my attention about the Women’s World Cup was how many players used the spotlight they were given to talk about issues outside of football: equal pay, LGBTQ+ rights and racial equality. The co-captain of the U.S. team, Megan Rapinoe, kneels during the national anthem.
And she didn’t mince words when asked if she’d visit the Trump White House after winning the World Cup.
I’m not going to the [BEEP] White House. No. I’m not going to the White House.
NELUFAR: The more I looked into it, the more obvious it got — the football pitch was, for so many of these players, a battleground to fight for urgent change. But since when did women’s football become so much more than just a game? I called up Shireen Ahmed, a sports writer who has been following footie for a very long time.
NELUFAR: Why are these women being so loud about things that have nothing to do with sport? I mean, one might argue that their job is to just play the game. Why get social justice and LGBTQ+ rights and equal pay involved in all of this? What has it got to do with football?
Well the thing is, is that football has been nonpolitical only for people that don’t have to deal with those issues. For many in the margins — and we’re talking LGBTIQ communities, women of color — sport has always been inherently political. So it’s not as if they just woke up in June 2019 and said, “Let’s talk about it.” These women have been talking about this and mobilizing for a very long time. It’s only now that they’re getting the attention that they deserve.
NELUFAR: I mean, this thing is a juggernaut. I think this could be a pivotal moment for not only equal pay, but women’s rights — and a social dialogue and a global dialogue that we’ve never had.
SHIREEN: Absolutely. I mean, the chant of “equal pay” reverberating through the Stade de Lyon was, was unbelievable. I got goose bumps. It was so important, because this is specifically what all footballers are saying that are women — that this is, this is inextricably linked to the play, to the game. And now to bring attention on a global scale to this issue — and it’s so, so critical. Because it’s often thought as an afterthought, because that’s how many of the federations still look towards the women’s game. Now the numbers are rolling in, the viewership in Europe has been outstanding —
NELUFAR: Yeah, but Shireen — does women’s football will even make that much? I mean, is it even as popular?
SHIREEN: OK, so the women’s game has always been a very viable product. Just sort of discussing from a basic economic standpoint, you can’t not invest in something and expect a return. To get a world-class product, you have to invest. Now, let’s look at the NBA. When it first started, it didn’t make money. The MLS, which is the Major League Soccer organization in the United States, didn’t make money for a long time — it lost money. So you have to invest. So this issue of economics — and just for example, if you want to get really down to it, the U.S. women’s national team brought in $50.8 million between 2016 and 2018. The men only brought in $49 million. We’re talking merchandise —
NELUFAR: Wait wait wait wait wait. Slow — that was too — my brain can’t comprehend that. I mean, that’s insane.
NELUFAR: OK, let me repeat those numbers for you. The U.S. women brought in $50.8 million. The men? Forty-nine. And this is really important, because the argument for why women footballers get paid less is that the women’s game generates less money. Not true.
SHIREEN: This is why the U.S. women’s national team is literally suing their employer, the U.S. Soccer Federation, on the grounds that they’re being discriminated against. Because they are paid significantly less, not just by the USSF — the U.S. Soccer Federation — but also the prize money from FIFA. Now, yes — globally, the men’s final and the men’s game does bring in a lot more. But look how much attention, how much investment, is put into that.
NELUFAR: Imagine, they say, if they had the support they needed, backing their success. And this isn’t just a problem with the U.S. federation. Female pro footballers all over the world are paid less.
SHIREEN: You know, Denmark, last year, they actually went on strike because of the disparity in pay. And in places like Nigeria — the Super Eagles staged a sit-in, because forget about earning or even being negotiated pay. They weren’t paid the monies they were due before from previous winnings.
NELUFAR: The U.S., Denmark, Nigeria — this isn’t just a global north or global south problem. It’s not just one country — but the entire world.
SHIREEN: We’re talking about living wages. Jessica McDonald, who is a player with the U.S. women’s team, contemplated quitting soccer altogether because she’s a single mother and she wasn’t able to raise her son on the salary afforded to her. Because the U.S. women’s national team doesn’t — I mean, they don’t get paid like this every year. It’s during a World Cup year.
NELUFAR: This really caught me off guard. After the struggle of even qualifying to play for your country, the wage you earn isn’t enough to feed your family.
SHIREEN: When we look at what the players do, the footballers do, they are always, always in a place of having to advocate for themselves because the system is set up to not prioritize their needs. We’re not just talking about money. There are situations of safety. There’s the situation in Afghanistan, where the players came forward with allegations of sexualized violence by the president of the football federation there.
NELUFAR: Yep, in the country I was born in, Afghanistan, several players from the national women’s team say they were sexually abused. And for years, these allegations weren’t even investigated.
SHIREEN: It fell on deaf ears, because the person who was committing the violence was at the highest — he himself was the highest echelon in office. This is something that male footballers don’t have to worry about. Like, they don’t have to worry about these — the minutiae that really become a huge obstacle for women around the world.
NELUFAR: I mean, some of the things you’re saying — it just, it leaves me quite speechless. Why oh bloody why, after all of this, are these women putting themselves on the line?
SHIREEN: They’re, one, excellent at it. They’re connected to the sport. It’s part of their identity. But it’s also, in some places, a form of resistance to push back and say,
“No, we love this, we should have access to it.” Sport is a birthright. They should be able to compete and play and train in safety. And in some places, it’s not even about playing, it’s about even watching. In Iran, since 1979, women have not had access to stadiums to even watch sport.
NELUFAR: Let’s talk a second about that young girl from Cameroon, from Afghanistan, watching from Qatar, anywhere in the world — who really is a fan of football, and dreams of becoming the next big football star. How does this kind of attention on the professional women’s sport, how does that filter down to that grassroot level? How is this impacting her and her dreams?
SHIREEN: They look at these footballers and they see themselves represented, and that’s incredibly important. They not only see the pitch. They see the work that the women do off the pitch as well, to try to pave the way. And this is so much of what these players are about. It can never be, “Let’s just play.” It’s always, “Let’s play and let’s fight.” And these are the messages that the young girls are getting.
[PERCUSSIVE SYNTHESIZER MUSIC]
NELUFAR: It’s clear that a lot more has to happen to get the women’s game the investment it needs to provide the basics any job should — after all, FIFA generates billions of dollars every World Cup. There’s plenty more the federation can do to demand equality and a risk-free environment for its players.
So how does a female player make a career — or even a livelihood — out of football?
One of the stories that caught my eye when I was researching was the truly astonishing achievements of the Jamaican national team, the Reggae Girls. So I called up their goalkeeper, Nicole McClure. She’s been playing the game since she was 9 years old.
I guess it started in my backyard in Queens, New York. My brother played every single sport and I wanted to do everything he did. So I think when I was 7 years old, he played in a local recreational league, and my mom felt that I was too young to play. I kept bothering her, asking if I could play as well, but she said, “No, maybe next year.” So I received a flyer in school when I was in fourth grade, and I brought it home and showed her and said, “Hey, next year is today.”
NELUFAR: And from playing in a team in Queens, Nicole went on to play for her college team, the University of Hawai’i. When she was there, she met the coach who changed her life.
NICOLE: My very first female coach, actually —
NICOLE: — and my only female coach to this day.
NELUFAR: Are you serious?
NICOLE: Yup. Yup. A head coach, Denise Schilte-Brown. She’s still there.
NELUFAR: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Wait. You’ve been playing football since you were like 6, 7 years old, and the first time that you came across a coach that was a woman was when you went to college?
NICOLE: Mm-hmm, that’s correct. All the assistants were men. All of the equipment people were men. The physios were men. Just men, men, men. Except for Denise.
And I was approaching graduation, and I was ready to join the corporate world like everyone else. But she said, “No, you’re special. You’re an elite athlete.”
NELUFAR: So straight out of uni, Nicole got her first contract playing professional football.
NICOLE: My first contract was playing in Iceland, and prior to that I had never even heard of the country Iceland. Everything was completely different. It was very quiet, very laid back, very rural where I was. I’m not used to that. The language barrier, the culture shock, the food — everything was different.
NELUFAR: I’ve been to Iceland — it’s like being in “Game of Thrones,” Iceland is. It’s quite different, to be honest, to like New York. I want to just get a bit of a sense of like — what were your hopes and aspirations for what being a professional football player was like, and how much of that was met?
NICOLE: The money aspect was kind of lower than I expected.
NELUFAR: How much were you making?
NICOLE: It was $1,200 U.S. a month.
NICOLE: And room and board were covered. Mm-hmm.
NELUFAR: Wait, stop. But — you can earn that like working in a supermarket, right?
NICOLE: Right. Yeah. You can.
NELUFAR: So you were being paid $1,200 plus board and food and stuff to be a professional football player? Does that not weird you out? I swear footballers get paid millions.
NICOLE: Well, not in the women’s game, we don’t make millions. Maybe in other currencies. But certainly not in my bank account.
NELUFAR: Since then, Iceland has worked to reduce the wage gap. But just a few years ago, the men were making 460 times more money than the women.
After Iceland, Nicole went on to play football for a club in France, and then she was picked for the Jamaican national team — the country of her heritage. It’s a big deal for her. And in 2019, Jamaica were trying to qualify for the Women’s World Cup. They’d never qualified before.
NICOLE: Buckle up for this story!
During qualifiers for the 2019 Women’s World Cup, we had to wear the men’s kit. And our coaches actually scratched out with a marker, a permanent marker, the word “boys” on the back of the jerseys, because it said “Reggae Boys.”
NELUFAR: Now — if there’s a symbol of the disparity between women’s and men’s football, surely this has to be it.
The Jamaican national team played the qualifying tournament with these shirts on.
And they were doing really well. The deciding game was against Panama.
NICOLE: It was extremely dramatic. It was freezing cold, it was raining on that October evening. Our coaches looked over to me as soon as Panama equalized — because I wasn’t playing at the time, I was on the bench.
And they brought me on in the 118th minute, or something ridiculous like that. Came on, probably touched the ball maybe once, and then the final whistle was blown. And then it was a penalty shootout.
FEMALE SPORTS ANNOUNCER:
…by Jamaica. So much on the line here for these young players. That’s a confident finish to go ….
NICOLE: First shot, they scored. And then we scored, and we evened the score. Second one, they scored. Then we evened again. Third one, I saved it.
MALE SPORTS ANNOUNCER:
Saved! By Nicole McClure! How big can that be for Jamaica!
NICOLE: And then my teammate matched it again. And then we were up 3-2.
MALE SPORTS ANNOUNCER: And Chang for Jamaica! Beautifully taken penalty! Now she can exhale! 3-2 Jamaica.
FEMALE SPORTS ANNOUNCER: …and that’s a great strike —
NICOLE: And then after that one —
MALE SPORTS ANNOUNCER: Deep breath…
NICOLE: Final whistle was blown. Jamaica qualifies.
MALE SPORTS ANNOUNCER: Jamaica are going to the Women’s World Cup for the first time ever!
[STADIUM CROWD CHEERS]
NELUFAR: OK. I’m not going to lie, yeah? I’m sat here in this recording studio, like waving my hands about, like yelling silently into the air. I just love hearing it!
How did you celebrate qualifying for the World Cup? I want to hear about the party that’s a bit legendary, apparently?
NICOLE: So, the big celebration was in December in Jamaica. The Minister of Sport, she organized a five-day celebration just for us. We paraded —
NELUFAR: Five days! The Americans didn’t get that much, and they won the bloody thing!
NICOLE: Yeah, it was quite amazing, just a lot of fun. It was just, just partying for five days, basically. We stayed at one of the best hotels in downtown Kingston. We paraded through some of our teammates’ neighborhoods, which was really cool to see. We went on the main highway, we had music playing, we stopped and danced with people. We got the key to the city of Montego Bay, of St. Ann’s Bay. It was overwhelming and humbling. It was — it was an honor, because it means a lot to me to be so connected to my homeland, even though I wasn’t born there. I’ve always felt like I should have been born there.
NELUFAR: The Prime Minister of Jamaica even mentioned Nicole — by name — during a reception to celebrate the team’s qualification. It was a moment: The Reggae Girls were finally getting what they deserved. Or at least it seemed that way.
NICOLE: You would think after that moment, the JFF would be on board and say, “Wow, OK, maybe we should invest in these women.” Nope! Still no. Still playing games.
NELUFAR: That’s right — even after their historic achievement, the Reggae Girls aren’t getting what they need from their federation.
NICOLE: I’ve been part of the program since 2008, and we’ve never — we as players, staff, the technical staff — we’ve never received any monetary compensation. We’ve never ever been paid.
NELUFAR: You’re telling me you’ve never been paid to play for your country, Jamaica?
NICOLE: I have never been paid to play for my country, Jamaica.
NELUFAR: I mean, I hear the words you’re saying, but I’ve lost the ability to comprehend it.
I just have one more question for you, Nicole. What are your hopes and aspirations for the woman’s football — for the game itself going forward? After we’ve had the 2019 World Cup, what do you want to see, and how are we going to get there? How we can solve this problem?
NICOLE: I would love to see domestic matches being played on TV — not even just in their home countries, but also internationally. Like I would love to see that on television live, not just on a livestream on the computer. I would love to see jerseys being sold with our last names on them. I would love to see more commercials promoting games. Whatever the men get, I would love to see it trickle down to the women as well.
NELUFAR: In short, equality.
NICOLE: Yeah! I’d love to see equality. That’d be great.
[PERCUSSIVE SYNTHESIZER MUSIC]
NELUFAR: The problems in football are many, but there’s one thing that unites all of the women I’ve spoken to in this episode of “Course Correction”: They have hope. Fans, players, officials — we all have a part to play in transforming the ugly side of the beautiful game. I asked Shireen Ahmed, the sportswriter, what more can be done.
SHIREEN: So let’s start with the male players, as allies. Things as simple as even tweeting out — like Manchester City — the club in England — was one of the first to start tweeting about their women’s side from their main account. And this is important.
NELUFAR: When legends like David Beckham and Kylian Mbappe speak up and give credit — duly so — to women’s football, that support lands into the pockets and smartphones of hundreds of millions of followers.
And speaking of fans…
SHIREEN: Now as far as the supporters go — this is, this is very easy. You need to look at domestic leagues. Talk to your federation — email them, say, “I want more women’s football.” Call your provider, your sports provider, and say, “I’d like you to show these matches,” where previously not all of them were shown before.
NELUFAR: Broadcasters, clubs and leagues are driven by money and demand. Showing your interest can trigger change. Now maybe, like me, you’re not a super fan. But if you are, then at the very least, you can take these groups to task. But from all the people I’ve spoken to on and off the pitch, there is one clear and distinct entity responsible — and therefore capable — of making the biggest difference.
SHIREEN: Now as far as the federations go, this is, this is where we get to it. Have women on your administrative boards. Have women on executive committees. Have more women in there. That is key. Not just at the global level for FIFA, but at local levels. Are there women making decisions or training? Are there opportunities for referees, for coaches, for volunteers, even? Where are the women here? It’s not like — you can’t make decisions about a group of people that you have nothing to do with. You have to include their voices.
NELUFAR: There are professional sports which don’t have pay disparities. In tennis, the men and women players earn equal pay in all the major tournaments. And that’s because the men and the women play their tournaments in the same place, at the same time. They share advertising. So it’s harder to tell whether it’s the men or the women who are bringing in more money.
And there’s one more reason why women get paid the same as the men in tennis: Billie Jean King, the legendary tennis pro, made it happen. She wanted to show that women deserve equal prize money. So in 1973, she played against Bobby Riggs in an epic “battle of the sexes.” And won.
King outclassed Riggs, winning in three straight sets.
[STADIUM CROWD CHEERING]
BILLIE JEAN KING:
Women can be great athletes, and I think you’ll find in the next decade — women athletes will finally get the attention that they’ve deserved through the years, that people will respect us as athletes, and not just whether we’re good-looking and whether we’re cute. We’re changing —
NELUFAR: Later that year, the U.S. Open became the first grand slam tournament to award equal prize money.
It took brave women athletes — and a lot of publicity — to win equality.
If Billie Jean King could do it for tennis, then maybe Megan Rapinoe can do it for football.
That’s our show today. And now I want to hear from you. How have you dealt with gender discrimination? What are your ideas about ways we can eliminate the gender pay gap?
Tweet us at @DohaDebates. I’m at @nelufar.h.
“Course Correction” is written and hosted by me, Nelufar Hedayat. The show is produced by Doha Debates and Transmitter Media. Doha Debates is a production of Qatar Foundation. Special thanks to our team at Doha Debates — Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. This episode was mixed by Dara Hirsch. If you like what you hear, rate and review the show. It helps other people find us. Join us for the next episode of “Course Correction” wherever you get your podcasts.