On Tuesday night, a few minutes before the kickoff of the Women’s World Cup semifinal between the U.S. and Germany, the starting players for each side walked onto the pitch accompanied by 22 young children. This intergenerational spectacle is familiar to even casual soccer fans: The children are youth players who’ve been selected as player escorts, and they’re an expected sight at professional soccer games around the world. Their purpose is basically to embody the connection between players and young fans (and to make FIFA look good). “The Youth Programme highlights the importance FIFA places on enabling children to connect with the sport from an early age,” according to a FIFA press release.
Player escorts at men’s games are almost always co-ed, but the player escorts at the USA-Germany game last night were all girls. In fact, the vast majority of player escorts at this year’s World Cup have been girls, which is a shame and a missed opportunity. The message conveyed by the gender imbalance of the player escorts is that only girls should care about the Women’s World Cup. It would obviously be better for the sport and the fans to show that boys care about the Women’s World Cup, too.
FIFA and the Canadian national organizing committee behind the tournament aren’t forthcoming about why most of the player escorts at this year’s World Cup are female. The Youth Programme participants, which also include other, less visible roles, were selected from more than 50 soccer clubs based in and around the six host cities: Edmonton, Moncton, Montréal, Ottawa, Vancouver, and Winnipeg.* “Our local venue teams reached out to their various soccer communities (many of which had purchased group tickets to the Competition) in order to fill the roles of Player Escorts, Ball Crew and FIFA Flag Bearers,” explained Richard Scott, the director of communications for the Canada 2015 national organizing committee, in an email. “It is our understanding oftentimes a Club and/or Team would select the participants, such as having one team fill a particular role as they were all attending the game.”
I asked for clarification on what exactly this meant—did FIFA, the local venues, or someone else instruct local organizers to favor girls over boys as player escorts? I have yet to hear back. Regardless of whether the heavily female composition of the player escorts was intentional or simply a reflection of the types of youth teams that bought tickets to the tournament, it’s an unfortunate result.
If the organizers did favor girls on purpose, I’m sure that that decision came from a place of good intentions. It is indeed important to teach girls that they can grow up to play professional sports, if they’re driven and talented enough, and to show them women who have succeeded in careers that have traditionally been male-dominated. And in fields that have been historically controlled by white men, it can sometimes make sense to set aside positions for women or minorities in order to help correct the imbalances of the past.
But the FIFA Youth Programme isn’t an ideal place for girls-only roles. That’s because player escorts’ purpose is largely symbolic: The children are there to look up to professional footballers as a proxy for all the children (and adults) around the world who admire these gifted athletes. In the men’s game, the fact that player escorts are usually boys and girls represents that people of both sexes can and do respect professional male footballers.
The unintentional symbolism of excluding boys from walking out with the women’s national teams is that boys either don’t look up to female soccer players, or that boys shouldn’t look up to women’s soccer players. The latter is, needless to say, a terrible message. The women playing in this year’s World Cup are better athletes than the vast majority of boys and men who play soccer will ever be. If boys care about skill and athleticism, they should look up to Megan Rapinoe and Célia Šašić. And if they don’t currently look up to Rapinoe and Šašić, adults should teach them to! Women’s sports will never get the respect and attention they deserve if boys grow up believing that they needn’t care about female athletes.
Luckily, a glance in the stands indicates that many boys do care about the Women’s World Cup. As a fan watching from home, my favorite part of the tournament has been seeing shots of bleachers occupied by men and boys wrapped in flags and plastered with body paint, cheering themselves hoarse for their women’s national team. I only wish FIFA would catch up with the fans and go find some Canadian boys to walk out with England and Japan today. Because the sight of a young boy literally looking up to a world-class female soccer player would be a powerful symbol of the respect that all soccer fans—male and female—owe the women’s sport.
Correction, July 1, 2015: This post originally misspelled Ottawa.