Amid all the sporting action over the opening weekend of the World Cup, an off-the-pitch controversy caught the eye: the criticism levelled at at former Manchester United defender Patrice Evra, one of the faces of ITV’s coverage. On Sunday Evra appeared as a pundit alongside ex-Celtic player Henrik Larsson and Eni Aluko, who’s newly signed to Juventus – and responded to Aluko’s incisive evaluation of Costa Rica v Serbia with applause, and wide-eyed disbelief.
It seemed to be a genuine attempt at praise, but it was an uncomfortable moment. “She knows more than us!” was his aside to Larsson – which invites the question, why wouldn’t she? Aluko has had a long career in football, just like Evra has, and in 2014 became the first woman to appear as a pundit on Match of the Day – all while studying to earn her legal qualifications, both in the US and the UK.
Evra’s response highlighted the strange paradox that women in football must negotiate. For Aluko in that pundit’s chair, expectations manage to be both high – do you know enough? – and woefully low: do you know anything?
Surely what’s most unbelievable isn’t that women – specifically, experienced professional female football players – can offer insightful analysis, but that so many male ex-players consistently fail to do so, and yet are continually employed as pundits and commentators. It’s a striking double standard, one that Aluko – and Alex Scott, one of England’s best ever female players, over on the BBC – are no doubt vividly aware of.
So of course they’ve prepared, and done their homework, apparently to a level that baffles their male colleagues – because they know that they can’t get away with the sort of inarticulate banalities we’re so used to hearing from men in the same position. It’s not fair, but it’s a fact: such is the scarcity of women in football broadcasting that when one is allowed across the threshold they become envoys not just for the women’s game but for their gender as a whole. If they perform well, more can follow in their footsteps. There is no such pressure on their male counterparts, whose gaffes are laughed off, celebrated, forgiven.
The Evra/Aluko affair is a reminder that, despite huge strides, football remains in the eyes of many a distinctly male currency: a language native to men, but acquired by women. The fact that Scott and Aluko have been given prime spots in the BBC and ITV World Cup coverage – and have both been praised for their performances – is undeniable progress. But if broadcasters are serious about equality, they need to hold all their stars to the same standard – and realise that Scott and Aluko have raised the bar.