Symbolism and the Women’s World Cup

11 Aug 2023

In a Referendum year when politics is all around us, the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 has raised important questions for Ellen van Neerven who explores its political symbolism and the irony of “keeping politics out of sport”.

Symbolism and the Womens World Cup_Header

How many childhood hours juggling a ball, playing on home and away grounds and staying up to watch match after match did I spend, imagining a World Cup here? I knew the FIFA World Cup truly was the tournament of the world, and I longed for it to be here on home soil. This event means so much to me as someone who has been obsessed with football from a young age, and whose early sense of the deep spirituality of Country came from travelling south-east Queensland for matches with my parents. My family, both my Mununjali side and my Dutch side, nurtured this love.

I was taught that sweat is how Country recognises us. We offer our sweat to Country to let the Ancestors know who we are and our intentions. So playing sport is an embodied act on Indigenous land, it is ceremony. A pitch marked with lines is laid on top of a First Nations site.

In 2009, Australia seemed in the running to host the Men’s 2022 World Cup – but disappointingly received only one vote, with the tournament being awarded to Qatar.  Ten years later, Australia would bid again, this time for the 2023 Women’s World Cup, along with Aotearoa New Zealand as co-hosts, and be successful.

I have been counting down the days ever since, proud that this tournament will make history as the first Women’s World Cup to be played in the southern hemisphere. I am happy we have the women’s first (no doubt we’ll host the men’s version one day). Growing up, I knew the hunger and dreams, the hustle for space and this country’s demands to get the women’s game recognised and supported.

Excellence on fields, across cultures

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ contribution to the round ball game has long been undervalued and underestimated. Simply look at the stories of Charles Perkins, Karen Menzies, John Moriarty and others for evidence of that.

The Matildas’ Indigenous players, Lydia Williams (Noongar) and Kyah Simon (Anaiwan and Biripi) have both accrued more than one hundred caps (awarded to players for each international game they play in).  And both Lydia and Kyah can be credited for the team practice of holding up the Aboriginal Flag before each match (this display, after a wait for the decision, was approved, along with the Māori flag, by FIFA for the tournament). The colours, black, yellow, red – represent Country: people, sun and earth.  Cathy Freeman is a big inspiration to the playing group and players have spoken many times of ‘creating a Cathy Freeman Sydney moment’ – a sporting triumph that unites the whole nation – an exhibition of pride on home soil. When the Matildas are on the pitch it is with appreciation and respect for the land they are playing on and the knowledge held by Elders. This is a team that stands against racism.

Over in Aotearoa, three Māori players were named to represent the Football Ferns: Claudia Bunge (Ngāi Tūhoe), Grace Jale (Ngāti Raukawa) and Paige Satchell (Ngāpuhi).

“We are bringing the culture to the team, we want to keep those traditions and having Māori in the team on the roster is so important for us,” Football Ferns coach Jitka Klimkova said.

So it was disappointing to hear there were reports of players from the Netherlands and Spain squads, two teams based in Aotearoa during the group stage, publicly mocking the Haka. Spain captain Ivana Andres later apologised to Māori people.

Every match begins with a Welcome to Country in Australia or Pōwhiri and distribution of poi in Aotearoa. In the games I’ve attended, Elders have been widely celebrated by crowds.  However Channel 7 commentators were called out during the Australia vs Ireland match for disrespectfully talking over Dharug Elder Aunty Julie Jones’ Welcome and cutting to a commercial break.  In other ways the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup is showing respect to First Nations people: this tournament is the first to signal traditional place names and include Indigenous design – symbolically powerful processes – though more can be done to recognise Indigenous perspectives and culture in our sport.

Recently, an Indigenous-led football body whose members include Craig Foster, Stan Grant and Adam Goodes criticised FIFA of ‘empty symbolism’ by using Indigenous culture at the Women’s World Cup while not ‘committing any legacy funding towards programs that support First Nations involvement in the game.’ The lack of investment into the Indigenous game needs to be called out. It has always been a massive problem on a continent where Indigenous people have always played multiple forms of football. Australia’s (failed) bid for the 2022 Men’s World Cup included a focus on the possum skin round ball game played on this continent for thousands of years, a tradition is highlighted in John Maynard’s book The Aboriginal Soccer Tribe.

This tournament has raised important questions for me and others about how far symbolism can go in sport when it is not coupled with investment and genuine commitment. It’s always ironic when people call to keep politics out of sport, when sport is inherently political, and part of a world that continues to colonise, brutalise and divide.

In a Referendum year, politics is all around us.  Respect of sovereignty and the rights of Indigenous people has never been more important.

 

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