World Cup's Female Reporters Make History While Enduring Harassment

Julieth Gonzalez Theran
Deutsche Welle

There are more women than ever covering the globe's biggest sporting event, but female reporters are facing a barrage of sexism and abuse in the male-dominated world of international soccer.

It's been a World Cup of upsets and surprises.

Established giants of soccer — Germany, Brazil, Argentina — have struggled to perform at the top level while overlooked underdogs, including Mexico, Russia and even England, have overturned conventional wisdom by going toe-to-toe with the big boys and emerging as tournament favorites.

But an even greater upset is underway at Russia 2018. It's happening at broadcast booths and on pundit sofas from London to Buenos Aires to Beijing: Female sports reporters are finally getting their shot at the biggest sporting event in the world.

Aly Wagner and veteran Argentinean soccer commentator Viviana Vila made history this year, becoming the first-ever women to do in-match commentary for a World Cup in the U.S., on Fox Sports and Spanish-language Telemundo, respectively. Vicki Sparks smashed that glass ceiling for Britain in the BBC's broadcast of Portugal versus Morocco on June 20, while Claudia Neumann made German TV history as the first female to call a men's World Cup match with her coverage of Argentina versus Iceland June 16 on public broadcaster ZDF.

Even in Latin America, where machismo is still very much alive and where soccer is akin to a religion, female journalists are making inroads. Less than 5 percent of Argentine journalists covering the 2018 World Cup are female —10 out of 220 reporters — but that actually is double the number for the last World Cup in Brazil four years ago and up from a paltry two women journos in South Africa 2010.

“We see that it’s opening up, but the change is very slow,” says Veronica Brunati, the only female reporter on the team of 27 covering Russia 2018 for Argentine's TNT Sports, which holds local broadcast rights to the event.

“It's growing and it is becoming more socially accepted that a woman can report on soccer,” adds her colleague Cecilia Caminos, an Argentine correspondent for the DPA news agency.

But, argues Brunati, “there is still no place for women in main roles (of sports coverage). There's no female presence in the top debates about soccer.”

And for many female World Cup reporters, sexism — both subtle and overt — is still a problem. Brunati tells The Hollywood Reporter she's already had two confrontations since arriving in Russia, including a “violent situation” with a male fan and an episode “where a (male) fan came at me and had to be forcibly moved while I was broadcasting live,” she says.

Agos Larocca, another Argentine journalist working for ESPN from the World Cup, reported a similar incident, while reporting live outside the Nizhny Novgorod stadium. An Iceland fan tried to grab her, only to be knocked away by her producer. Larocca later joked on Twitter that she was glad she brought “her bodyguard” with her.

Colombian reporter Julieth Gonzalez Theran, a correspondent for Deutsche Welle’s Spanish-speaking service, wasn't so lucky. While reporting live from Moscow on the opening day of the World Cup, she was harassed by a fan who forcibly kissed and groped her.

“¡RESPECT! We don’t deserve this kind of treatment. We’re just as valuable and professional. I share the joy of soccer, but we need to identify the limits between affection and harassment,” she posted afterward on her Instagram profile.

The Russian fan later publicly apologized to Gonzalez Theran, saying he was shocked when he watched the video back. "I imagined that my sister could have been in her place — or my mother — I wouldn't have liked that at all," the man told Deutsche Welle. "My conclusion is that it is important to respect people's personal space. You can only hug someone with their consent." To the reporter, he offered his "most profound apologies” and said he hoped she “will never face another such incident in (her) career."

Gonzales Theran, who garnered praise for her professionalism during the incident — she continued with her live report as if nothing had happened — accepted the man's apology and said she appreciated his reaching out. But, she noted, “what happened was unacceptable and disrespectful...(but) I refuse to be a victim, I just want to continue with my job, reporting about football.”

Russian journalist Barbara Gerneza also had to deal with a similar situation while interviewing a group of male Brazilian fans for news service IG. The fans, apparently aware Gerneza didn't speak Portuguese, got her to join in with an obscene chant in which they were singing about a “Russian pink vagina.”

In response to the incident, Russian women's rights activist Alyona Popova has sent a petition to the country's interior ministry and Brazil's embassy in Russia, demanding an apology and punishment for the chanting Brazilian fans.

“I guess it’s because we’re women and more vulnerable,” says Brunati. “People try to be funny, and they’re not funny at all.”

“As a woman you always need to be careful in the World Cup,” adds Caminos, calling soccer's premiere event “a sexist universe, with male stars, male fans, and mostly male reporters.”

Elsewhere, incidents of harassment and bias against female commentators have been less overt, though no less toxic. In Germany, public network ZDF stocked up its social media team ahead of the Argentina versus Iceland match, in anticipation of the online trolling they expected to accompany match commentary by reporter Claudia Neumann. Sadly, they were right. The online vitriol was so noxious —“Thunder c—” was one of many offensive Facebook comments — that ZDF Sports Director Thomas Fuhrmann felt the need to publicly defend his reporter.

“We're fine with criticism but what happened with Claudia Neumann crosses all boundaries (of decency),” he said in a statement. “A woman comments on a men's World Cup match and the Internet goes crazy. Clearly something is touching a nerve here.”

Neumann herself declined to comment. But the veteran reporter made her opinion known following similar trolling in her coverage of the European Championships in France in 2016.

“When a female reporter looks cute standing on the sidelines, it's usually OK. She's not invading any male territory,” Neumann told German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung. “But if a woman spends 90 minutes talking about soccer and telling men things they don't know or maybe see differently, men have to be very self-aware to accept that. And maybe not so many are.”

Indeed outside a few more enlightened countries, many international networks seem to still view female reporters at the World Cup as mere eye candy. Yang Mingming, the only women reporter on the ground in Russia for China's CCTV 5 sports network, has generated loads of media buzz back home, but almost all of it due to her “prettiness.” Several fans have been posting on Chinese social media site Weibo about how they have been staying awake to watch the “beautiful commentator” on CCTV 5.

In Japan, female commentators are frequently former models who typically nod and agree with their male colleagues. A female in-match commentator is unheard of. And while Russia TV has seen some progress, with a handful of women sports reporters breaking through, soccer is still an all-male preserve, with not a single female face, or voice, on air for World Cup 2018.

Fox Sports is actually a frontrunner when it comes to female reporters and commentators, with such onscreen talent as Kate Abdo, Kelly Smith, Maria Komandnaya, Jenny Taft and Rachel Bonnetta alongside Aly Wagner for Russia 2018. The success of women's soccer in the U.S. — Fox Sport's broadcast of the 2015 Women's World Cup final drew 25.4 million viewers, still an all-time viewing record for a soccer match in the U.S. — may be one reason women reporters and pundits have made more progress stateside.

In most of Europe, female sports commentators are nothing new, though their numbers are still dwarfed by their male counterparts.

And subtle sexism still exists.

French soccer star-turned-pundit Patrice Evra came under fire from viewers during ITV's coverage of the Serbia versus Costa Rica match when he applauded commentary by Eniola Aluko, a star player for Serie A club Juventus who has been played 102 times for England's women's squad. Many viewed Evra's comments about Aluko — at one point he said to a fellow (male) pundit: “she knows about more football than us! I’m really impressed, you know”— as condescending and patronizing. Evra insists he meant his comments as a compliment.

What seems undeniable is the impact of women's rights movements, particularly #MeToo, on the perception of female broadcasters and working conditions at the World Cup.

In Brazil, earlier this year, 52 female sports journalists launched a campaign with the hashtag #DeixaElaTrabalhar ("Let her work") to gather reports of aggressive incidents, harassment and prejudice they have suffered both in the newsrooms and on the pitch. The campaign included a video, first shown in front of 79,000 spectators at a soccer match at Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium, in which the women  spoke out about the violence and harassment they had suffered at work, and demanded respect from both the public and colleagues. It quickly went viral.

#DeixaElaTrabalhar built on previous efforts in the region, including the Journalists Against Harassment campaign launched in 2016 to denounce machismo in Brazilian newsrooms.

In neighboring Argentina, the women's rights movement has been given a major boost thanks to protests against violence against women, which began in 2016 under the label #NiUnaMenos (or Not one less, meaning not one more woman lost to male violence).

But not everyone has gotten the #MeToo message. Burger King in Russia was forced to apologize after running a campaign that promised 3 million rubles ($47,000) and a lifetime supply of Whoppers for any woman impregnated by a soccer player competing in the World Cup. German prepared foods giant Dr. Oetker found itself on the wrong side of a social media storm after it ran an online World Cup ad featuring a 1950s-style hausfrau holding a cake in the form of a soccer ball and the slogan: “Bake your man happy, even if he has another true love.” The company has defended that ad, saying it was meant to be “ironic.”

Despite such retro attitudes, there are also signs of progress. Far more women have been reported attending matches in Russia 2018 than is typical for the national soccer league, which is plagued by violence and hooliganism.

“The World Cup games are calmer than the national championship,” activist Popova told The Guardian, “so we can see more women in the stadiums than usual. Everyone discusses football here. The problem has not been a question of who is interested in the sport, but about who attends the games.”

And, in one of the truly feel-good stories of this year's tournament, on June 20, for the first time since 1979, Iranian women were allowed inside a soccer stadium to watch their team’s match against Spain. Iran may have lost 1-0, but in thousands of images tweeted around the world, female soccer fans celebrated the historic victory for gender equality.

Alex Ritman in London, Patrick Brzeski in Beijing, Rhonda Richmond in Paris, Lee Hyo-won in Seoul, Gavin Blair in Tokyo, Ariston Anderson in Rome and Pip Bulbeck in Sydney, Australia contributed to this report.