Gotta Hear Both Sides

Amidst all the hand-wringing about equal pay and equal opportunities in the women’s game, it’s important to remember some of the financial shenanigans from male footballers

Via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s the thing about watching a World Cup: for about a month and a half, you lose all ability to tell time, to communicate about anything that isn’t football, to keep track of events that don’t come with a fifteen minute panicked breather in the middle of them. 

And here’s the thing about watching a World Cup that happens to feature women athletes: you end up doing all of that for a month and a half, on top of which, you’re usually called upon to defend the idea— “Debate me!” a million angry internet voices cry— that these players deserve to be treated the same as their male counterparts. The argument— if one can call it that— centers around the idea that women athletes bring in less revenue than men, and thus shouldn’t receive equal pay, equal access to resources, equal coverage and media attention, and equal respect. (This has been systematically disproven, of course, but when has that ever mattered.)

Other World Cups have had conversations about equality, of course, but the overriding call for every single team in this one has been equal access, equal payment, and equal opportunity. We’ve seen what teams can achieve with next to nothing, and we’ve watched teams that had the smallest amounts invested in their success soar to new heights.

But even as the USWNT filed their lawsuit for equal pay; even as the Jamaican team found their funding suspended by their federation and still made it to the global stage thanks to Cedella Marley; even as the Argentinian women slept in buses when they travelled for international games, the stories surrounding money in men’s soccer remain pretty constant: an athlete— usually one earning several million a year— has just committed tax evasion

Resource allocation may be the most prevalent theme in the 2019 World Cup, but income regulation— and the legal exceptions made for male athletes— has to play at least some part in that conversation. 

Take Italy, for example. The women’s team had an incredible run in the World Cup–their first since 1999–and the strength of their squad has a lot to do with recent investment in the nation’s women’s league. Major Italian clubs have dedicated resources to grow their women’s sides and their national team was able to make it to the quarter-finals, but the players are still considered amateurs and many are still underpaid or unpaid. 

Getting paid— and holding on to that income— is much less of an issue for male players. Italy recently approved a new tax regime designed to help clubs attract international football players by giving them a tax exemption of 50% of their salaries. This is a sizable part of the state’s income given away in order to raise the profile (and calibre) of the men’s league.

Take a moment and picture anything even remotely similar being afforded to the women’s teams. 

When we deny women access to the resources that men can take for granted, we’re punishing them for their gender and policing exactly what entire teams (and nations of female athletes) can and cannot do with their bodies and their time. But surely the most egregious part of this equation has to be the lack of policing afforded to men. The same people who claim there are no funds to pay women’s salaries are the ones absolving male athletes who earn billions of not performing basic civic duties. 

Both Lionel Messi (noted tax evader) and Cristiano Ronaldo (alleged rapist and tax evader) have legions of fans who are more than willing to dismiss their crimes–because tax evasion is a literal crime–because they play incredible football. What’s worse is that several governments are willing to bend the rules to do the same. The taxes that aren’t being collected by governments like Italy’s could go towards any number of things: from fixing infrastructure, to funding healthcare, to improving schooling, to increasing public resources for women who have been kept out of the game for way too long.

And here’s a fundamental part of the conversation that so many people keep forgetting: everything about sports–much like everything else in society–is political. But that intersection of sports and politics has always been far more obvious and far more discussed in women’s sports and men’s, for the simple reason that women’s bodies and lives are far more politicised than men’s are. 

It’s why stories about tax evasion never spend more than a few hours in the news. It’s why male athletes’ stories are framed by their accomplishments, with the legal battles they are embroiled in tacked on as an afterthought.

It’s why the conversations around whether or not women athletes deserve better treatment and better pay have all devolved into public referendums, when conversations about unpaid taxes are shrugged off at best, or treated as an athlete’s right at worst. 

Here’s the thing about resources: the conversation about where they’re lacking is incomplete without also talking about where they’re concentrated. After all, as the million angry voices on the internet love to say, you just gotta hear both sides. 


Ritika Bhasker grew up loving football and talking about it with anyone who would listen. When she’s not yelling at a TV screen, she’s usually talking and writing about data and elections. Her proudest moment will always be the time The Guardian hailed her for remembering who Vladimír Šmicer is. You can find her on Twitter at @mostlyinane.