She can deftly flick the ball like Lionel Messi; she can astutely dribble past defenders like Messi; she even wears the number 10 jersey for Argentina, like Messi. But whatever you do, don’t call her Lionel Messi. “I really like the comparisons. Don’t get me wrong, but I’d rather they get to know my name,” said Estefanía Banini.

The 28-year-old striker is not only the face of Argentine football, she’s also one of its most outspoken critics. “We are all used to fighting against discrimination, inequality and lack of resources,” Banini said. “As a result, we are stronger and more united.”

Dividing her club time with Levante in Spain and the US-based Washington Spirit, Banini is one of the many players that have highlighted the first week of the Women’s World Cup in France. Indeed, it’s no surprise Banini is a star. Argentina is synonymous with football and the South American nation has produced a series of world-class players over the years.

In a country where football’s biggest legends are men and the game, for some, largely seen until recently as off-limits to female participants, football’s gender war in Argentina has seen increased attention over the last few years. With Argentina playing in the Women’s World Cup for the first time in 12 years, there is a renewed focus on the type of gender inequality that permeates not only Argentina’s favourite game, but society in general.

For a nation that has had several notable female leaders – including former first lady Eva Perón and in more recent years, Cristina Kirchner – the machismo that remains strong in Argentine culture hasn’t helped women’s football progress.

Argentina opened its Women’s World Cup on 10 June with a historic draw against title favourites Japan at the Parcs des Princes in Paris. The 0-0 draw marked the first point ever for Argentina in tournament history, triggering a series of celebrations on the field that quickly spilt over into the dressing room. Four days later, they were defeated by England 1-0, a slim margin given how favoured the Lionesses are by some bookmakers to contend for the trophy. Both games were an example of how years of fighting for respect and equality may finally be paying off for the South Americans.

Equality has been the buzzword at this tournament in France. Not a press conference goes by without reporters asking players and coaches about gender discrimination and how this competition can bring attention to both women’s football and the issue of pay equity in all professions around the world.

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The Argentina players, for example, have struggled financially, triggering a strike in 2017 after their daily stipends of just $10 went unpaid. National team players lacked basic amenities, including proper dressing rooms and adequate practice pitches, and were forced to travel great distances in a single day to avoid costly overnight hotel stays. In addition, the players were upset last year when Adidas, the brand that sponsors both men’s and women’s teams, unveiled their new kits and decided to use professional models rather than the players.

Incidents like these have given way to more attention and slow change. The national team now uses the same training facilities in Buenos Aires that houses Messi and his teammates. Manager Carlos Borrello said the women’s game, mired for years in obscurity and amateurism, is finally getting financial support – but there needs to be more. “Of course, there is more support,” Borrello said. “That is the key to fulfil any project that we devise. One of the basic deficiencies was competition and a calendar that includes friendly matches beyond CONMEBOL. That’s how the players can begin to develop.”

Borrello said the national team can only be supported by “laying a foundation” – nurturing players as young as 15 – in order to build future success. Argentina’s match on Wednesday to close out the group stage against Scotland is another test of the talent gap that exists between Argentina and the European nations that have started to take women’s football seriously. “The problem is that Argentina has stagnated and the other countries have developed,” he added. “To know where we stand, we will have to start competing. If we do not play, we do not know where we are.”

After decades of neglect, earlier this year, Argentina announced the launch of a 16-strong professional women’s football league – with teams bankrolled by big-name clubs like Boca Juniors and River Plate – that kicks off this summer. It is a national tournament where salaries average about $3,000 a month, much in the same way as the ones in England, France and Italy, where clubs have invested heavily in women’s teams.

Federation president Claudio Tapia said they are committed “to develop women’s football” not just in places like Buenos Aires – where Boca and River are based – but across the country. “I hope that the coming tournament is the kick off for continued growth,” he said.

The issue of equality isn’t relegated to Argentina. Most of the 24 nations participating in the World Cup have had an issue with their federations regarding pay equity, improved training facilities and better funding to develop players. The United States’ recent 13-0 win against Thailand – the biggest margin of victory ever recorded at a men’s or women’s World Cup – exposed the talent gap and funding inequity that exists. Even the Americans – so far ahead in terms of talent at this tournament – sued their federation earlier this year over pay equity.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino said more needs to be done, especially by national federations, to support the women’s game at all age levels. “The truth of the matter is, yes, we have increased the payments and the prize money of the participants participating in the Women’s World Cup from $15m to $50m – so almost three times more,” he said. “Now this is still much less than the men’s World Cup. This has to do with how the [television] rights were commercialised.

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By comparison, the prize money for the 2018 men’s World Cup was $400m, with champions France taking home $38m. The winners of the Women’s World Cup will get $4 m, twice as much as the United States took home for winning the 2015 tournament. “We need to commercialise it separately from men’s football,” Infantino said. “All the revenues generated will then be reinvested.”

Noël Le Graët, who heads the French Football Federation, echoed Infantino’s sentiments, but said national federations need to do more. In France, the investment in women’s football has been exemplary. The FFF, for instance, has seen an increase in female players over the last decade after investing in programs aimed at girls. “Women’s sports grow and develop in a very positive fashion if they are properly worked upon,” he said. “We all have to convince the associations. They all have excuses. They say they don’t have enough space for them. They say we don’t have enough money. This is the case all the time.”

While federations can do more, it’s the clubs that have fuelled growth and interest. The French league, known as Division 1 Féminine, is made up of 12 teams. Olympique Lyonnais have been the best side in the country and are widely considered the best in the world. Purchased by the men’s club with the same name in 2004, the female team has benefited immensely from its association with such a wealthy club willing to pay player salaries that often reach $500,000 a year.

The results speak for themselves: the club has won six Champions League titles, including a record of four in a row from 2016 to 2019. They have also won 13 consecutive domestic league titles from 2007 to 2019. The team features some of the best female players in the world, including a number of stars at the current World Cup like England defender Lucy Bronze, and Germany striker Dzsenifer Marozsán. Lyon also boast seven France players, making Les Bleus among one of the favourites for the title. “That’s what we’re trying to do, pass on the confidence we’ve gained from the Champions League,” said France striker Eugénie Le Sommer. “The Lyon players were decisive, but it’s a team effort.”

Missing from this World Cup is Le Sommer’s Lyon teammate, Ada Hegerberg. Considered the best striker in the world, the Norway star decided to sit out this tournament in protest. In 2017, Hegerberg told Norway’s FA that she would no longer play for the national team because they were being treated unfairly compared to the men’s side. She has lauded the French club for their investments.

In an interview with CNN, Hegerberg said: “There are federations, there are clubs, there are men in high positions who have that responsibility to put the women in the right place and that’s where I think, I feel, and I know, we have a long way to go.”

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The federation has said it is committed to giving men and women equal pay and access to facilities in what would be the first arrangement of its kind anywhere in the world. Nonetheless, Hegerberg has remained on the sidelines, leading to speculation that the row between the 23-year-old striker and the national team runs deeper.

Hegerberg also made headlines last December after winning the Ballon d’Or as the world’s best player. Upon receiving the prize, Martin Solveig, a French musician who hosted the ceremony, asked Hegerberg if she would twerk for him on stage. She firmly said “no” and awkwardly tried to leave.

At an international level, Fatma Samoura, who serves as FIFA’s secretary general, has tried to use her role as the highest-ranking female executive within international football to shine a brighter light on the women’s game. At a FIFA-organised women’s football conference in Paris earlier this month, Samoura addressed an array of issues affecting women in the game. Most notably, she talked about the need for women to be safe after allegations of sexual harassment and sexual abuse surfaced recently regarding male football executives.

Accusations of misconduct involving female players have generally remained private. There have been some exceptions. Two years ago, former US goalkeeper Hope Solo accused former FIFA president Sepp Blatter of groping her in 2013 at an awards ceremony. The #MeToo movement, which has brought down many in Hollywood, has spilled over into football. Cases involving mistreatment, even rape, are now being investigated in Gabon, Afghanistan, Colombia, Ecuador and Canada. “I want the Women’s World Cup to be a safe space for girls and women, where your voice can be heard, and where you can feel empowered,” Samoura told the attendees.

For all of FIFA’s talk, not everyone is happy with what they have done the past few years to help the women’s game. Even the scheduling of this month’s World Cup has come under fire. The 7 July final in Lyon will take place on the same day as the Copa América and CONCACAF Gold Cup finals, two male tournaments. US midfielder Megan Rapinoe, an outspoken FIFA critic, said: “It’s ridiculous and disappointing, to be honest.”

Rapinoe said FIFA should have used its power against both CONMEBOL and CONCACAF to schedule those finals on a different day. Officials with both federations have admitted that they were made aware of the conflict after the fact. They have said it was too late to change the dates because tickets had already been put on sale. “I think there have been strides that have been made. In terms of their capacity for change and the ability for them to change – they have unlimited resources – I don’t think that it’s really been a huge change at all,” she said. “I think the incremental change that we have seen is not enough.”

Players like Rapinoe and Banini remain vocal in the hopes that what they accomplish on the pitch – and say off of it – will help trigger positive change. “It means a lot [to play at this World Cup] because it gives us hope,” Banini said. “We are very happy and hopefully it will be the first step for a very big future for Argentina.”

By Clemente Lisi @ClementeLisi

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