Children and career: soccer players adapt their goals
Soccer players once felt they had to put off motherhood until after their playing days were over. Now some are starting families mid-career, with lingering resentment at their clubs replaced by a FIFA-imposed policy.
Pregnant players faced reduced or unpaid wages, threats, partial maternity coverage, and even dismissal. It was only in 2021 that FIFA published new rules and the situation is now changing.
“Before being footballers, we are first and foremost women,” said Cameroonian international defender Claudine Falone Meffometou, who plays for French first division club Fleury and gave birth to a daughter in May 2021.
“Being a mother changes my life and my way of seeing things and my way of behaving,” she told AFP in an interview on the occasion of International Women’s Day on Wednesday.
“For a long time, many girls who would have liked to start a family told themselves that their contract was going to end. Most waited until the end of their career to have a child,” said the 32-year-old.
“Today, things are different and it feels good.”
Meffometou said that she had the constant support of her club during her pregnancy. And although he was out for 10 months, Fleury offered him a contract extension in 2021.
Icelandic player Sara Bjork Gunnarsdottir had a far less positive experience at one of the world’s top women’s clubs, and her case led to a landmark ruling in January.
When she became pregnant in 2021, eight-time European women’s champions Lyon cut Gunnarsdottir’s salary, saying her bosses showed little understanding when she returned to training after having her baby.
In an article for Players’ Tribune, Gunnarsdottir recounted how one of Lyon’s directors did not respond to his representatives until he filed a formal complaint after he was not paid for two months.
When Gunnarsdottir turned to the FIFPRO players’ union for help, he claimed Lyon told him his career at the club would be over if he went ahead with the case.
Gunnarsdottir, now with Italian giant Juventus, finally won his case in a FIFA court and Lyon were ordered to pay him more than 82,000 euros ($87,000) plus interest.
“Victory felt bigger than me,” he wrote. “It felt like a guarantee of financial security for all players who want to have a child during their career.”
His case drew support from former Ballon d’Or winner Megan Rapinoe. The American called Lyon’s approach “utterly disgraceful.”
In the United States, maternity rights have been included in player contracts in an agreement between the national team players and the US federation.
‘Peace of mind’
But at the highest level, combining a playing career and kids is still relatively rare.
Of the 3,500 players involved in the main championships questioned by FIFPRO in 2017, only two percent had a child, and of those players, only eight percent received a maternity allowance from their club or federation.
Things got better in 2021 when FIFA published new rules that mean international federations guarantee a minimum of 14 weeks of maternity leave, of which at least eight weeks must be taken after the birth. Additionally, players must receive at least two-thirds of their salary.
It is important to stress that, in light of Gunnarsdottir’s experience, clubs have an obligation to re-integrate the player into the team and must be given the opportunity to breastfeed, and clubs must provide adequate facilities to do so.
Leading clubs are gradually adapting to the needs of their players, and after Gunnarsdottir’s unfortunate experience, Lyon are trying to do better with midfielder Amel Majri, who gave birth to a daughter, Maryam, last July.
“The club allowed me to travel to matches with Maryam and her nanny,” Majri said when she returned to the team in January.
“That gives me peace of mind and allows me to fully do my job as a player… and I can spend all my free time with my daughter.”
The French federation is working on plans to allow Majri, if selected, to take her daughter to Australia for the Women’s World Cup later this year.
“Even a few years ago it was something that seemed so inaccessible that we didn’t talk about it,” another French international, Estelle Cascarino, told AFP.
“Now everyone is learning how to deal with these types of cases. They are examples, pioneers”.
There’s still much to do. The new FIFA conditions have not yet been applied at the national level in France, for example.
And it was only when Italian women’s soccer turned professional last year that the players received full maternity coverage. Until then, the cover was partial.
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