2016-08-13 05:20:46

Yesterday in Rio de Janeiro, the Chinese women’s football team faced off against Germany in the Olympic quarterfinals, after a 0-0 draw against Sweden and a show-stopping 2-0 performance against South Africa earlier in the week. Sadly for their fans the team lost the match 0-1. But the result doesn't diminish their achievement in the competition. 

Just days before, social media went wild for 22-year-old Tan Ruyin’s spectacular 40-yard strike in the 87th minute of the game against the South African team.

“If this goal had been scored by Lionel Messi it would be played for at least a week all over the world, commented the team’s coach, Frenchman Bruno Bini. This is the difference between men’s and women’s football.”  

Commentators point out another difference: money. Though the women’s team has consistently gone further in international competitions, men’s football attracts higher league salaries, and more attention from the top levels of government. Under President Xi Jinping, a big football fan, China is pushing to develop its prowess in the game, but most of the investment and media coverage is directed at the men’s competition.

The Chinese men’s team hasn’t qualified for the Olympics since 1988, and for the World Cup, it has qualified only once, in 2002 — when they went on to lose three matches without scoring a single goal. The women’s team has done considerably better, making it to the quarterfinals four times since the inaugural Women’s World Cup was held in 1991, and taking fourth place in 1995 and second place in 1999. 

But according to Wang Fei, a recently retired national goalkeeper who commented on the qualifiers in March for Chinese internet-technology company NetEase, some of her former teammates were earning less from their clubs than a waiter would. Wang said 20-year-old Yang Man, one of the women playing at Rio, had a monthly club salary of just 3,000 yuan (about $451) with no bonuses for performance. 

“There’s a big income gap compared to women’s football overseas,” Wang said. “The salary isn’t proportional to what we put in.”

The pay gap is substantial within the country too: In 2015, online-news portal Sina reported that while female players’ salaries averaged under 40,000 yuan a year, the average league salary for male players ranged from 7.3 million yuan for China’s top club — ranked 190 in the world — to around 797,600 yuan for the country’s 14th-ranked club. For players on the national team, while women receive a 1 million yuan bonus for reaching the top 8, men receive twice that if they reach the top 12.

Similar pay disparities between the United States’ women’s and men’s teams have become the subject of a lawsuit. In March, five top players from the U.S. women’s national soccer team filed a wage discrimination complaint against the United States Soccer Federation. They said they were paid a fraction of what the men’s team earned despite being significantly more successful. The case is currently before the equal opportunity commission, and female footballers in Costa Rica, Colombia, and Australia have also protested pay issues.

As well as low wages, Chinese sports commentators said this week that female footballers in the country have inadequate health coverage, even though the demanding and intense sport forces many to retire by the age of 25 with minimal education and limited career prospects.

“Female footballers not only have to play for the love of the game, they also have to play with their lives,” a sports blogger wrote.

For many athletes, the chance to play professional football and represent their country at an international level is the dream of a lifetime. That makes the campaign for better wages and conditions more difficult, because players are expected to make personal sacrifices. But in the 25 years since the first Women’s World Cup was played in China, women’s football has grown substantially, and as the competition matures, women are beginning to ask for more.

“We’ve had to fight all along,” Lauren Gregg told Sixth Tone in Shanghai in May. She was the assistant football coach for the U.S. women’s team that won the 1996 Olympics and the 1991 and 1999 World Cups. “We fought for per diems, then salaries, then sponsorship contracts, then residency programs. None of these things were just volunteered.”

(Header image: Tan Ruyin of China celebrates with teammates after her goal at the soccer match between South Africa and China at  the Olympic Stadium, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Aug. 6, 2016. Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters)