No one will deny that women’s football has come a long way since the discrimination and oppression it suffered when first founded in the late 1800s. But objectively, and scientifically, could women one day be better at football than men?
Could we see Nadine Angerer nominated for the same coveted Ballon d’Or award as Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Franck Ribéry and not take home a female specific version for her trophy cabinet? If a female player was good enough, why shouldn’t she be allowed to move into the more lucrative men’s game? In fact, why do we have separate leagues at all?
Or biologically does this concept of sexual dimorphism, the scientific term for physical differences between males and females, simply not favour women in football? Are women genetically at a disadvantage when it comes to the fitness components required for football and will there always be a need for separate leagues?
One person who certainly thinks this is not the case is former England women's football coach Hope Powell, who was quoted in the Metro newspaper saying she believes her team could beat their male counterparts:
Absolutely we could beat them, why not? I think physically the guys are obviously a lot stronger than the women, but with technical ability I think we’re as good as the men and we’d give it a really good go.
Proving her sentiments aren’t just wishfully optimistic is a group of elite female athletes who not only competed against men, but did it and won.
What’s even more impressive is these battles of the sexes didn’t take place on a rhythmic gymnastic mat and nor did they occur in a show jumping arena. Instead they took place over hundreds of miles on a bike, during a gruelling three sets on a tennis court, on a testosterone-fuelled American Football field and even during two rounds of boxing at Madison Square Garden.
Ultra cyclist Seana Hogan is the first case study to prove women are a force to be reckoned with on two wheels. Considered a legend in the sport, and not just among women, Seana was the overall winner at the Furnace Creek 508 in 1995. In 1996 she set the record for the fastest time to cycle from Los Angeles to San Francisco, completing it in 19 hours and 11 minutes. A record that has remained unchallenged by both women and men ever since.
Famously Billy Jean King single-handedly campaigned for gender equality in tennis when in 1973, at the Houston Astrodome and viewed by over 50 million people around the world, she accepted a challenge from retired male professional Bobby Riggs. According to History Riggs said, “I’ll tell you why I’ll win. She’s a woman and they don’t have the emotional stability,” but was later made to eat his words when he lost the $100,000 winner-takes-all match in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
Next, and perhaps most impressively, Jackie Tonawanda not only competed against men but she beat them up in the sport of boxing. A pioneer of women’s boxing and dubbed “the female Ali,” in 1975 at Madison Square Garden Tonawanda fought kickboxer Larry Rodania and knocked him out in the second round.
Finally, a modern-day heroine who goes by the name of Jennifer Welter. She made history earlier this year by becoming the first woman to play a non-kicking position in a professional American Football league. At 5'2" and 130 pounds, she seemed completely unfazed when met by defensive lineman Cedric Hearvey, who stands at 6'4" and weighs 245 pounds. According to E Online, she even found time to ask Mr Hearvey, “is that all you got” following this tackle.
Undoubtedly, these are all inspiring stories, and all sports fans will agree there’s nothing quite like seeing a perceived underdog defy the odds and triumph in what many consider a mismatch.
Male or female there’s something almost heroic about the victory of the underdog, but in 2004 FIFA ruled that leading female footballer Maribel Dominguez could not play for Mexican second-division club Celaya, as reported by the BBC. Some sports scientists would argue on grounds proved by sound scientific evidence that shows women are at a genetic, physiological disadvantage to men.
The main point of difference between male and female athletes, which is frequently used in the gender debate, is the vast difference in “hormonal factors” to quote researchers from the Sports Medicine journal. Put simply, women have higher levels of oestrogen and lower levels of testosterone than men.
This in turn gives birth to a number of physiological advantages for men, ranging from a lower body fat percentage, greater muscle mass and strength and even the production of more efficient red blood cells to carry oxygen around the body, which provides an aerobic advantage.
Controversially, some female athletes have sought to artificially and synthetically gain this hormonal advantage that men are born with through the use of anabolic steroids. Scientists from the University Hospital Maastricht in the Netherlands reported, “strength gains of about 5–20 percent of the initial strength and increments of 2–5kg bodyweight, that may be attributed to an increase of the lean body mass, have been observed.”
To use a modern example, Belarusian-born Nadzeya Ostapchuk was stripped of her Olympic Gold shot put medal after displaying feats of strength most men could only dream of, only to then test positive for anabolic steroids.
Hormonal advantages aside, sports scientists from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, categorically found that male athletes possess a different composition of muscle fibres too, which gives them an additional advantage. More specifically they discovered men have more Type II muscle fibres, the ones responsible for strong and explosive movements, compared to women, claiming:
“Women were approximately 52 percent and 66 percent as strong as the men in the upper and lower body respectively. Data suggests that the greater strength of the men was due primarily to larger fibres.”
But while Hope Powell correctly identified a male footballer’s strength, power and speed advantage, she failed to acknowledge their endurance advantage too. Scientists from State University of New York College at Cortland examined a group of male and female middle- and long-distance runners from the U.S Olympic trials and found:
When compared in running economy, men used less oxygen and when men and women of equal VO2max were compared, the men were significantly more economical. It was concluded that men are more economical than women. Also, when men and women of equal VO2max or equal economy are matched, the men show a better aerobic profile.
What this means is not only do men have a larger lung capacity to deliver more oxygen to the working muscles and last longer, but they also have more haemoglobin in the blood. Haemoglobin is a molecule that transports oxygen around the body, so having more of it gives men an endurance advantage.
Finally, statistical data doesn’t favour female athletes either. Israeli physicist Ira Hammerman claims to have identified a little-known ratio held across all sports. Presenting his findings at the 2010 Wingate Congress of Exercise & Sports Sciences, he stated:
Women's speed world records are all about 90 percent of the men's speed world records, in both short, middle and long distances.This constancy is intriguing considering the variation of the individuals, the different physiological challenges in the different sports and at the different distances.
Hammerman analysed 82 events in total across sports, which included running, swimming, cycling, rowing, kayaking and skating and found the female world record, in every one, was .84 to .94 slower than the male world record.
Some could argue this doesn’t take into account skill, tactical awareness and many other factors needed in sports such as football, but to directly quote Hammerman, he believes the factors which separate men and women are, “simple and basic."
So, looking at the anecdotal, scientific and statistical evidence, will women ever be as good as men in football? Based on the studies, and Hammerman’s 90 percent rule, no—due to a number of biological advantages men are born with.
But while it's unlikely women will ever be as good as men at certain sports, ethically I don't think women's participation against men should be dictated by people in white lab coats.
Skill, determination and passion for the game can’t be so easily measured plus, football is yet to find it's Billy Jean King or Jackie Tonawanda. In summary, if 5'2" Jennifer Welter can brush off a tackle from 6'4" Cedric Hearvey, then let Maribel Dominguez play football for a male club.