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This post was written by Isaiah.
The world loves to hear people prattle on about themselves. If you don’t believe me, just listen to any of Kanye’s albums. Sometimes interviews are immensely revealing of their subjects, such as Inside the Actor’s Studio‘s trip through comedy with Dave Chappelle (YouTube has some of it here), but other times they reveal their inner bigot in a way that is not intended. When they are rightly harangued for their paleolithic views by one section of the media and society, these celebrities are often simultaneously defended by those who are convinced there is some sort of concerted oppression of whatever privileged group the celebrity is part of. A recent example is Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson commenting on homosexuality and race in a GQ interview and then the re-backlash from Christian conservatives. If you’re interested in such things, a good takedown of parts of that can be found here. It should be noted that Dusty is right in his prediction: A&E has already re-hired Robertson for another season.
Another type of the character-suicide-by-interview is the one that happens during a press conference. Laurent Blanc recently committed this by making light of women’s tactical understanding. He “joked” that it was beautiful that a woman understood the difference between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 while speaking to a journalist asking him questions. That journalist, Johanna Franden, is Aftonbladet‘s international football correspondent and while you might mock that newspaper’s general coverage, it’s obviously foolish to think that they have journalists who don’t know anything about the fields they’re covering.
Only that’s the thing: is it obvious? It seems blindingly obvious in cases like Blanc’s sexism because it was stated out in the open. We are also quick to believe anything negative about him because we already know that despite being cleared of racism charges in court, Blanc was part of a French national team structure that at the very least discussed implementation of racial quotas throughout the youth training program. It’s not necessarily so obvious in more nuanced moments, like Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Expressen interview (Swedish) from December 13.
At one point, according to a variety of media outlets, Zlatan said, as quoted in translation by The Local, “I was asked last summer who was the best, me or (Swedish ladies international) Lotta Schelin. You’re kidding with me, right? You’re joking with me. Do I have to answer that?”
It’s not like Sweden hasn’t recently encountered a divide between men’s and women’s soccer, either. In November, after Anders Svensson broke the all-time caps record for the Swedish national team with his 148th appearance, he was given a Volvo at a Swedish sports awards ceremony. Not really a big deal, except that he was given said car literally in front of Therese Sjögran, who just happens to have a record 178 caps for the Swedish women’s national team and who was most definitively not given a car. Obviously this oversight was corrected after the fact—by Peugeot.
In fact, Zlatan goes on to talk about that when the interviewer asks a follow up to his remarks on Schelin: “The media put a black shadow over everything. [Svensson] is better known for having been given a car than for breaking the record…Pay tribute to him instead for this record as he is one of the few players who has reached this level. It is better to stay on that line instead of devaluing him by comparing him with the ladies’ individual achievements. They can get a bike with my autograph and then we are good.”
He starts off with a correct statement about how Svensson’s record is no longer being talked about because of this car thing, but then he devolves into a sort of logic fail in which he says a comparison to the women’s game is a devaluation of Svensson himself. Oh and did I mention the part where he says that the Swedish women’s national team players who break records can get bikes instead of the cars the men get? From other comments it appears that he takes umbrage at how women are getting such equal shares of the glory while they’re pulling in so much less TV and advertising revenue.
The defense of Zlatan begins there, with the concept that it’s not fair when women get the same things as men. It’s the “Why is the WNBA on my TV” argument: they’re not as good, they’re not as fast, they’re not as entertaining. Why do women get gold medals at Olympics when their 100m times wouldn’t even get them to the final of the men’s race? Another tactic is to pooh-pooh the abilities of the women in question. Note that Zlatan doesn’t suggest that he’s better at football than Lotta Schelin, he mocks the entire idea of it. “You’re kidding, right?” It’s not even in the realm of the fathomable to The Great and Power Zlatan that someone might wonder if a woman who has put up insane numbers by any standard–some 140 goals in 138 games (depending on which set of stats you look up, but they’re all in agreement that she scores right around a goal per match)–might be nearly as good as him. Schelin also happens to play in the French league and has won the title there 5 times in a row since joining Lyon, has won the European Champions League title twice (consecutively at that), the Coupe de France twice (also consecutively), and the International Women’s Club Championship in 2012.
Yet poor Zlatan has to field questions about who is better. And what a joke, amirite? I once worked on a painting crew with a bunch of guys from my high school, several of whom played on the football team with me. The youngest of these guys was convinced that he, a second string midfielder on a mediocre high school team in the middle of Ohio, was better than any woman in the world. The rest of us laughed at him and eventually confronted him with this question in front of our coach, a semi-pro player in the Cleveland area whose skills were far and away above our own, and I’m happy to say that he laughed a hearty full-belly laugh and then told our little friend that the worst player in the then-existent WUSA would run rings around absolutely everyone on his own semi-pro team. Yet the kid wasn’t convinced.
Zlatan too is unconvinced. Schelin, Franden, and Sjögran are all highly successful Swedish women whose careers are nothing but literal laughs for men who should know far better. The amount of work that goes into building such a career, track record, and recognizable name is something that Zlatan and Laurent Blanc have already experienced, but they’re sitting on their throne looking down at everyone else. What isn’t “fair” is that women who compete at the national level in football are very often amateur or semi-pro athletes who have second jobs to cover their travel and training expenses. They’re at the peak of their powers, they’re dominating their sport, and their bodies are insane machines that can outperform all but the most elite of men yet they get to be disrespected on a grand stage simply because, well, men pull in more money.
There’s another side of the argument as well, which runs something like this: Zlatan isn’t talking about how Schelin and Sjögran are jokes because they’re women, but because of the level of play. Here’s what he said, according to The Guardian, “With all respect for what the ladies have done, and they’ve done it fantastically well, you can’t compare men’s and women’s football. Give it up, it’s not even funny.” It’s classic doublespeak to compliment someone in an offhand, meaningless way before putting them in their place.
You’re really bright, you’ve got a lot of sound ideas and your understanding of football’s ins-and-outs is really great, but Zlatan complimented them, he said the national team is doing great, but men are simply playing at a higher level; if you can’t see that, you are a sexist, Miss Take-Back-the-Night. Check your sexism-card-playing at the door, we’ll only have logical arguments here!
Sound familiar? The part that’s probably most infuriating isn’t the name-calling, the “rape is a joke” baiting idiocy, but the condescension where some Joe Schmo on the street can deign to acknowledge that a woman has the tactical nous to discuss a 4-3-3, or what the differences between Lotta Schelin and Zlatan Ibrahimovic may be. Classic doublespeak.