Is football a boys' game or a girls' game? The question may seem old-fashioned in certain parts of the world. After all, football is one of the most popular female sports, with some 30 million girls and women playing it worldwide, according to football-governing body Fifa.
But in several countries, girls are not allowed to play. In others, they are discriminated against or accused of being manly. Most come up against cultural stereotypes, even at an institutional level. Former Fifa President Joseph Blatter asked women to wear tighter uniforms to make their games more commercial, while Italy's former president of the amateur football association referred to female players as a 'bunch of lesbians'.
Even once they are at the top of the game, women footballers earn much less than their male counterparts: the Sporting Intelligence 2017 salary survey suggests that the gender pay gap is more entrenched in football than in politics, business, medicine and science. According to the survey, Neymar's 36.8-million-euro contract from Paris Saint-Germain is almost exactly the same as the combined yearly salary of 1,693 female players from the world's top seven women's leagues. Moreover, only 4% of sports media content is dedicated to women's sport and only 12% of sports news is presented by women.
As the world gets ready for the men's World Cup in June, we spoke to well-established and aspiring female footballers in Africa, Europe and Latin America to examine - and map out - gender inequality through the lens of football.
BRAZIL – Few Opportunities For Women In The Country Of Football
'She is not normal.'
This is what Marta Vieira da Silva heard time and again as she was growing up. Born in Dois Riachos, in the north-eastern state of Alagoas, one of Brazil's poorest, she was the only girl in her small town who played football.
'People made sure to let you know that,' she says, tearing up.
Known simply as Marta, she is by all accounts a football legend. She holds the record for the most goals scored at the Women's World Cup, and is the only woman to have been named the world's best footballer five times.
But Marta struggled to make it to the top, and the feeling of frustration and sadness of those early days are still fresh in her memory.
'It was just me – a girl in the middle of a lot of boys. It's only logical that most of my family members didn't approve. They didn't accept it because people still thought that it wasn't allowed for girls to play football,' she says.
Between 1941 and 1979, Brazil's government banned women from playing football and other sports that were 'incompatible with their nature'. Even after the ban was lifted, prejudice and stereotypes remained.
Laura Pigatin is a serious and disciplined 14 year old. Her dream is to become a professional footballer, and she dedicates herself fully to it.
'Even if it is recognised as the country of football, Brazil is the country of men's football,' said Angelica Souza of Dibradoras, a Brazilian website dedicated to women's sport.
Since the 1980s, few resources have been allocated to women's football in Brazil. Several national tournaments were discontinued, and female players earn so little they often have to work another job. It was not until 2013 that Brazil's Football Confederation (CBF) launched a national women's league.
Rio Preto Esporte Club is a perfect example of this lack of resources. The female team won the national league in 2015 and became the 2016 and 2017 champion of the Sao Paulo championship. But their training ground has holes because ants have their nests in it. One of the senior players acts as their coach. The others live on a scholarship given to them by the city council, earning 1,500 to 2,000 reais (US$460 to US$615) a month, five to a room in a house provided by the club owners.
The best players made their careers abroad. Marta, for example, moved to Sweden age 18 and now holds dual nationality. Despite becoming a legend, in Brazil she remains known as 'Pelé in a skirt'.
'It's like night and day,' says Sarai Bareman, Fifa's chief women's football officer, comparing men's and women's football in Brazil.
Bareman is due to travel to Brazil in April to address several concerns with CBF.
'In South America, there is a negative perception for young girls trying to get into the game. I think Fifa has a huge role, which is to lead by example,' says Bareman.
THE GAMBIA – How Far Do You Go To Pursue Your Dream?
Fatim Jawara was one of The Gambia's top players. She was the national team goalkeeper and played for the Red Scorpions, one of the strongest teams in the country's female league. At 15, she represented her country in the Under-17 World Cup, and received some money from the government for her performance, which she gave to her mother to build a bigger house in the crowded family compound.
But every day represented a new struggle: she earned no salary from football and faced constant criticism from neighbours who thought her appearance was too manly. She also came up against the cultural barriers that make women's lives in the West African country particularly challenging.
In 2016, age 19, she decided to embark on a dangerous journey to pursue her dream of becoming a professional footballer in Europe.
Her story made headlines around the world – but for the wrong reason. In October 2016, Fatim died in the Mediterranean, as the inflatable boat that carried her and dozens of others capsized.
Fatim took what's called 'the backway' into Europe – this is how Gambians describe the route that thousands of people take if they don't have a visa. It is a long, dangerous and expensive journey, which can cost over $2,000, most of which goes to smugglers along the way. Fatim travelled with a friend: they went from The Gambia into Senegal, then Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, crossing the Sahara desert, all the way to the Libyan coast.
Women's football in The Gambia lacks money and infrastructure. Girls play on sandy pitches, often their goals have no nets.
With a majority Muslim population and a strong tribal society, girls in The Gambia face many cultural barriers. Female genital mutilation and child marriage remain widespread, despite bans that came into place in 2015 and 2016 respectively. The UN children's agency UNICEF says that three in four girls are cut, one in three are married before the age of 18, and one in ten before the age of 15.
But despite this challenging background, there is a women's football league, and the sport is growing among girls.
Fatim's story serves as a cautionary tale for her team mates, who say they would never attempt such a journey.
'She had no opportunity as a girl to excel, to achieve her dream of being maybe a football star in The Gambia,' says Fatoumata Jallow-Tambajang, The Gambia's vice-president and minister responsible for women's affairs. 'Looking at Fatim's background, with the opportunities in Europe which she was driving at, she would have succeeded to be a shining star. I really want to champion her cause for her not to be forgotten, to become a symbol of hope for the youths.'
DENMARK – Still Fighting For Equal Rights
Nadia Nadim may have never discovered her talent, had she not arrived in Denmark under dramatic circumstances.
Her father, Rabani, was a general in the Afghan army, and he was killed by the Taliban when Nadia was 10. Nadia's mother Hamida decided to summon her five daughters and escape to Europe.
The six women drove to Pakistan, paying a smuggler to help them. With fake passports, they flew to Italy. Then they hid in a truck and ended up in Denmark.
It was in a Danish asylum centre that Nadia started playing football.
'I never knew girls can play football or any sport in general,' she says. 'I knew what football was because my dad was so into the game, and I had a football at home, but we used to play other games with it.'
Nadia went on to becoming the first nationalised Dane to play in the women's national football team. She was named the best player of the year by the Danish football association in 2016 and 2017 and one of the country's biggest newspapers gave her an award as the Dane of the Year.
'If I had stayed in Afghanistan, I would probably be married and have some kids, and be home. I can't really imagine actually being alive,' she says.
Denmark is considered one of the most equal countries in Europe and worldwide. It comes only after Sweden on the European Gender Equality Index, scoring well above the EU average.
Yet, women footballers fight for more recognition by sponsors, and for equal pay.
'Coming to a country like Denmark, where equality should be a priority, I was surprised that it wasn't. I was actually disappointed to see how unfair it was,' says Nadia.
In 2017, the women's national team came second in the Euro Cup, drawing more spectators than ever. The national team players tried to negotiate better salary and working conditions for their contracts, and even went on strike, missing a World Cup qualifying match. In November 2017, the pay gap dispute ended up with a deal: the women's side negotiated a four-year contract that improves health insurance cover as well as monthly allowances for female players, bridging the gap with the men's national team.
'As a football player you have an obligation to fight for rights, and equality is basically a human right. Why is it so different? And why are we still thinking like we are in Stone Age in a country like Denmark?', says Nadim.
'In Denmark football is still like a boys' game, because we don't have equal rights for national team players and for the girls,' says Jette Andersen, president of Fortuna Hjørring, an all-women's football club in northern Denmark.
In 2017, the team opened up Denmark's first elite football academy for girls in order to foster a new generation of young female players.
'I think the possibilities for the girls should be much better. Our club is 100% for girls and I think it makes a big difference. They don't have to compete with the boys' side,' says Andersen.
The New Feminist Struggle?
Extraordinary stories like Marta's and Nadia Nadim's may inspire young girls, just like Fatim Jawara's tragedy may prevent future generations from risking their lives.
Equal pay battles in countries such as Denmark suggest that there is an effort to achieve greater equality. Also in Brazil, where national players resigned over sexism in their football federation, there seems to be greater awareness surrounding gender inequality.
But ultimately, changing the way the game is perceived and giving more young girls access to it goes beyond an individual struggle.
'If you want to make a real change, you should go higher up,' says Nadia Nadim.
In The Gambia, football became a way for Aminata Camara to avoid early marriage, and it was possible only thanks to the support of her coaches and team mates.
'Just to say that girls need to be more persistent, that they need to lean in, that can't be the solution, it can't be an individual-level solution to a social, structural problem,' says Rachel Allison of Mississippi State University.
'This is a feminist struggle.'
This report is part of A Girls' Game, a multimedia project that was funded by Innovation in Development Reporting Grant granted by the European Journalism Centre.