Is it time to lift Fifa’s ban on female footballers playing in male leagues?

It’s not a fact that too many people realise, since it doesn’t come up often, but Fifa in essence banned female footballers from ever playing in male football leagues above junior level.

In a time of supposed inclusivity, and when more and more is being done to promote and improve women’s football and its standards, surely this arbitrary ruling just stands in the way of that.

Now, that’s not to say that there isn’t a place for separate female and male leagues in this world, but a blanket ban as exists now seems far from intuitive if people are genuinely serious about improving the quality of women’s football. Yes, there are biological differences between male and female athletes, but in the modern game there are female players who could easily compete at certain levels of male football – even if not necessarily at the uppermost echelons of the game – i.e. Premier League and sorts.

The official ruling from Fifa regarding the issue came back in 2004, when Mexican second division side Celaya – a men’s team – attempted to sign leading Mexican women’s national team striker Maribel Dominguez. At the time, the then-26-year-old had scored 42 goals in 43 games for her national team.

However, the transfer was blocked by the world governing body, with Fifa’s executive committee saying that “there must be a clear separation between men’s and women’s football”.

It seems like a backwards system, especially considering that up until a certain age – depending on the country in question – both male and female players can compete together at junior levels.

Yet, once they hit that arbitrary age, it’s deemed in the eyes of football’s governing body that the two opposing genders couldn’t possibly share the same football pitch for a competitive fixture, regardless of the skill level of the players involved.

The situation cropped up again as recently as March 2018, when Canada women’s goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe sought to join Calgary Foothills FC in the North American men’s league, the Premier Development League.

She was promptly informed she would be ineligible for the club’s men’s team and would have to play for the club’s women’s side, despite her being a regular between the sticks at international level for her country, and likely being as good – if not better – of a goalkeeper than most of her male teammates.

At the time of the rejection by the league, Labbe told CBS Sports: “It’s a tough pill to swallow being denied something because of my gender. That’s not something I can go home and work on and fix.

“I’m extremely thankful for the Calgary Foothills but I’m not happy with [the decision].

“I’m doing everything I can to get that rule changed, whether it’s for my benefit or someone else’s. I’m clearly, in this environment, at a physical [and] biological disadvantage [but] if I’m able to overcome that and prove that my abilities are good enough, then that’s what should matter.”

Her statements are entirely rational and reasonable too. Why shouldn’t she, and fellow female footballers, be allowed to play with male players, should they and the club that signs them believe they are good enough to do so?

Now, the one thing I do want to make clear though, is that as much as I believe this rule should be repealed, I also don’t want it to become forced upon teams or trivialised.

There is little benefit to a blanket ban, but the same can be said if leagues or Fifa try to offset their previous decision by enforcing quotas on clubs of having x number of female players. That doesn’t fix an issue, but rather makes the female footballers in the team just token items to fill a requirement.

Instead, it should simply be that teams have the option should they wish to pursue it. Perhaps no team would and football would continue the same as it has done – then no harm done, right – but maybe one or two teams, especially lower down the league systems, might take a chance on a talented female star and get some rewards.

Particularly at grassroots level, where talented female footballers might have come through a team’s junior ranks but then are forced to leave and travel much further distances simply because their local clubs only have senior teams in male leagues.

It will always be a controversial topic, and one far more complex than can be entirely covered in this article, but the blanket ban that exists to this day just seems somewhat nonsensical in the supposedly-inclusive modern game.

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