22/06/2018 12:25 BST

We've Made Progress This World Cup, But Football Still Isn't A Safe Space For Women

Eni Aluko has been praised for her punditry, but elsewhere broadcaster Julieth Gonzalez Theran was groped by a football fan.

It all seemed to be going so well for women at the World Cup. Vicki Sparks made history by becoming the first woman to commentate live on a World Cup match in the UK, while England Lionesses-turned-pundits Eni Aluko and Alex Scott received wide spread praise for their sharp insight and analysis.  

Then, everyday sexism reared its ugly head. On Thursday, Burger King issued an apology for a controversial advert offering a lifetime supply of Whoppers and a cash prize for any Russian woman who became pregnant by a World Cup footballer. Then, Julieth Gonzalez Theran, a Columbian reporter for Deutsche Welle’s Spanish news channel, was groped live on air when she was reporting outside the stadium. 

It’s 2018, but we still seem to have made little progress.

Maddie Meyer via Getty Images
Vicki Sparks commentating live for the BBC.

Women In Football, a network of women working in and around the industry, successfully campaigned for the hashtag #WomenInFootball to get its own Twitter emoji before England’s first World Cup Match. The group’s chair, Anna Kessel, is positive about the steps that have been made towards inclusion this year, but is keen to point our more work needs to be done.

“We celebrate the contributions made by the pioneering women who have broken barriers along the way - from Jacqui Oatley’s commentary on Match of the Day and over the airwaves at the 2010 World Cup, to the female pundits in Eniola Aluko and Alex Scott excelling on this new stage. Brilliant women have always been part of the national game, it’s wonderful to see them finally being given the platform to showcase their talent,” she tells HuffPost UK.

“However, the appalling behaviour shown towards journalist Julieth Gonzales Theran is a sharp reminder that whilst progress is being made, there remains the clear issue that women should be able to go to work feeling safe and treated with respect – the same respect everyone deserves.”

NurPhoto via Getty Images
Player-turned-pundit Alex Scott. 

Emma Townley, from This Fan Girl, an online community of female football fans, says she was “buzzing” about the advances for women this year until witnessing the treatment of Gonzalez Theran. 

“Footy fans in general love to ruin a live broadcast, of any kind. But, when it’s a woman reporting and groping is involved, it takes on a new sinister angle and is absolutely not OK,” she tells HuffPost UK. “It is time to end this male primacy in football.”

In the coming weeks, Townley would like to see more realistic representations of women football fans in the media to promote the World Cup as an inclusive place for spectators, as well as those working in the industry.

“If you Google ‘female football fans’ you are served a barrage of ‘sexy lady’ fans,” she says. “We’d like to seen some more realness. Football fans come in all shapes, sizes and races. The clue is in the name - footbALL. It’s a game for everyone.”

Kate Dale, lead of Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign, was also shocked to see the groping footage. “When football isn’t seen as a blokey preserve, this sort of behaviour will be seen more clearly for what it is: straightforward sexual assault,” she tells HuffPost UK.

Although Dale is pleased to see women including Aluko, Scott and Sparks in the limelight, she questions whether they have been subject to the same treatment as their male counterparts. 

Aluko became the subject of a social media storm when viewers accused co-pundit Patrice Evra of patronising her live during an appearance on ITV.  Evra clapped Aluko for delivering an in-depth analysis – in other words, doing her job. Dale also believes Sparks’ historical commentary “was under an unusual level of scrutiny, far more than any of her male counterparts”.  

“I’d hope that some of the criticising tweets were the last gasps of a dying breed of sexists,” she says. “Women are expecting and experiencing more equality than ever before in the workplace and on the street, but there’s still a way to go, particularly in sport.”

But hope is on the horizon for the next generation of women in football. This Sunday, we’ll get to watch “football mad” Alysia Singh, from Huddersfield, walk out with the England Squad as they take on Panama. The eight-year-old is the only UK winner of a competition organised by tournament sponsors Kia, which will see 64 children from across the globe take on the roll of ball carrier in Russia.

Alysia Singh, who'll be walking out with the England squad on Sunday 24 June.

Dale hopes the new age of public facing women in football such as Aluko, Scott and Sparks will inspire more girls, like Alysia Singh, to become immersed in the sport. 

“Babies aren’t born thinking football is a man’s game. Toddlers will happily kick a ball around in the park. Something happens along the way to bring about the gender divide in sport, and us adults have to set the example,” she says. 

“We need to see more female pundits, officials, coaches, volunteers, and backroom staff, more broadcasters showing female sports on TV, and more sports brands using realistic images of women and girls in their advertising. The more we see women in sport the more normal it will become.”