Brazil’s female footballers on a crusade to score big changes


A veritable mutiny broke out a few weeks ago within the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF). After years of having their demands ignored, several international level professional football players have called for changes in their working conditions and the right to at last take part in decisions concerning them at the decision-making level of the powerful CBF.

“Nobody would listen to me anymore. I was considered a nuisance, the one who talked too much.” Facing the cameras, wearing her sports kit, Cristiane Roseira de Souza Silva, usually known simply as Cristiane, announces with tears in her eyes that she is retiring from the Brazilian national squad at the age of 32, in a video broadcast online on 27 September this year.

“It is the most difficult decision that I have had to take in my 17-year career, but I am doing it because I can’t take any more. Nobody listens to us, we have so many good ideas, positive ideas that could change things,” says Cristiane, one of the stars of her sport and captain of the women’s squad, or Seleção.

Her departure was followed by that of four of her team mates, who also shut the door on their national team, in the same week.

The revolt began just after the send-off, in mid-September, of their coach Emily Lima. She was the first woman to hold the post, as well as being the first woman to hold a leading post within women’s football.

Her appointment at the end of 2016 gave rise to hopes for change. Her departure after only 10 months was taken badly by the players who had made clear their wish that she should stay on until the end of her two-year contract.

“For the first time in 30 years, the players have spoken out. Twenty four players have signed a petition saying they support their coach and that they have confidence in her work, that she should be given time. But the leaders aren’t listening to that,” explains Silvana Gollner, a lecturer at the University of Rio Grande do Sul, and a sociology researcher specialising in women’s sports.

“Then the departure of five players was discredited by the women’s football coordinator himself, Marco Arelio Cunha, who minimised the reasons linking their decision to the way the team was managed. It was time to say: enough.”

On 6 October, former players, or veterans, of the Seleção published an open letter that was widely covered in the press. It exposed the extent of the unhappiness and frustration of the women players, well beyond the national team.

Discrimination at every level

The troubles shaking up the Brazilian football world are not a simple disagreement over strategy and management. The revolt, “the result of a long history of doors staying firmly shut” as the signatories of the letter describe it, is above all about the unequal treatment of women in the Confederation.

“The macho culture in the CBF is an insurmountable barrier for women,” writes Marcia Tafarel, who played in the Auriverde shirt in the 1990s. Although football is by far the most popular sport in Brazil, women were legally banned from playing it for nearly 40 years.

“Professional women’s football is a very recent phenomenon and it’s come a long way, because women couldn’t freely practice the sport until the end of the 1970s,” recalls Gollner.

Today about 400,000 Brazilian women play football, but only 5,000 do so professionally (compared to 2.1 million men signed up to professional or semi-professional clubs).

Only two teams in the national women’s championship give the players employment contracts. In most cases the women cannot live on earnings from their sporting career and have a job in another field to ensure they have a decent income.

“We are taking action now because we want to ensure that all the women and girls who want to follow in our footsteps will have the means to achieve better results than we did, both on the pitch and elsewhere,” write the former players.

In addition to a failure to listen to both the women players and the women on the technical team, they are also poorly represented on CBF decision-making bodies. There isn’t a single woman on the board of directors or in the decision-making bodies (despite FIFA recommendations).

“As women players, we invest years of our lives and all our energy into building a team…but we are excluded from management and decisions that affect our team and our sport.”

Even worse, women’s football does not have its own department, unlike those that exist for marketing, competitions and partnerships. This is despite the fact that the creation of a women’s football department was decided on in May 2016, as part of a set of reforms.

“Nothing’s been done, in a year and half. There is a clear lack of political will,” explains Gollner, who also accompanied the players as an advisor.

“Words have to be followed by deeds and now we are going to be more vigilant about that.”

They also raise the lack of opportunities for career development. Many women train and get technical qualifications, but they are never offered the corresponding posts. They are also asking, finally, for more investment to improve their sport “at the grassroots”, supporting local women’s teams and championships, to foster future generations of women footballers and, who knows, future champions.

“After the letter was published, and above all thanks to the media impact it had, the CBF directors finally reacted positively by proposing a meeting, which took place 10 days later. That is the first time we felt they had at least begun to listen to us,” says Gollner, who took part in the meeting.

“During the meeting, which lasted two and a half hours, with the chairman, Marco Polo de Nero, and five other directors, we had a real dialogue. They weren’t expecting it, but we came with a list of demands. We want to make proposals and see if the CBF can implement them.”

More meetings are planned for the near future. “It’s time to put an end to sporadic management with one-off measures. We need a systematic approach,” says Gollner.
The Brazilians are also taking inspiration from other national federations in other countries. Many athletes play in the United States for example, or Europe. They can benefit from those experiences.

A good example of a pro-active measure is the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) which demands that clubs that want to play in the Libertadores Cup must have or create a women’s team.

“It is this type of affirmative action that can bring about change,” says Gollner. “What is needed is the political will for things to evolve.”

This story has been translated from French.