In a time that has seen the #MeToo movement go worldwide, the planet’s biggest football competition has provided a moment of sobriety.
From Burger King offering women a chance to win $47,000 and free Whoppers for life if they got impregnated by a World Cup player, through to the Argentine football federation publishing a section on “How to pick up Russian women” in its pre-tournament guide for staff and journalists, the specter of sexism and misogyny has never been too far away.
On Wednesday, German television channel ZDF took the remarkable step of lodging criminal proceedings against two social-media users who it says targeted Claudia Neumann, one of the channel’s leading commentators, with a barrage of sexist abuse.
Of the 16,000 journalists accredited to cover the World Cup in Russia, just 14% are women, according to FIFA, the tournament organizer.
And for some of those women working in the media at the World Cup, the past couple of weeks have been a challenging experience with reports of sexual assault, harassment and online vitriol being directed at them.
The first incident to gain worldwide attention came when a female journalist working in the Russian city of Saransk published a video of herself being sexually assaulted while broadcasting live on air.
Julieth González Therán was reporting for German broadcaster Deutsche Welle’s Spanish news channel when a man grabbed her breast and kissed her cheek.
González Therán maintained her composure and finished her report but was left visibly angry and upset.
After posting the video on her Instagram account, González Therán called for more respect for female journalists.
“We do not deserve this treatment. We are equally as professional and deserving. I share the joy of football but we must identify the limits between affection and harassment,” she wrote.
González Therán’s story is one that female sports journalists, particularly in broadcasting, have heard all too often.
In Brazil, the constant harassment suffered by female sports journalists led to a group of them launching a campaign with the slogan #DeixaElaTrabalhar, or “Let Her Do Her Job”.
The campaign, which kicked off in March, came after Bruna Dealtry, who works for Esporte Interativo, was reporting live when a man attempted to kiss her.
Brazilian journalist Amanda Kestelman, who works for GloboEsporte and is a supporter of #DeixaElaTrabalhar, believes part of the problem is the sense of entitlement held by some male football fans.
“I was in Russia for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics but the World Cup has been far worse because it brings the worst out of supporters who believe it should be a male-only event,” she told CNN from Russia.
“The problem has been especially bad in the streets with fans and drunk people.
“Once I left the metro and asked a boy to walk with me because there was a group laughing and pointing at me on the train.”
“My friend and colleague was kissed before a live report on two occasions. That was the worst. No one can do this to a woman when she doesn’t consent.”
That friend was Julia Guimarães, a TV Globo and SportTV journalist, who won praise for her reaction toward a man who tried to kiss her while she was reporting from Yekaterinburg.
“It’s horrible. I feel helpless and vulnerable,” she told Globo Esporte after the incident. “This time I responded but it’s sad people don’t understand why people feel they have the right to do that.”
Writing on Twitter after the incident, Guimarães said: “It’s hard to find the words … Luckily, I have never experienced this in Brazil. Over here it has happened twice. Sad! Shameful!”
Like Guimarães, Swedish journalist Malin Wahlberg was grabbed and kissed while reporting on Sweden’s game with South Korea.
Fatma Samoura, FIFA’s first Secretary General, condemned those responsible, tweeting: “Many women are in Russia to carry out their duties in a professional manner & it’s important we respect them & their work.”
One female journalist told CNN she had witnessed sexual harassment in an official FIFA Fan Zone, an area that is designated for supporters to congregate before matches and watch action on the big screen.
“I work with a Russian girl, who is a translator, and I have noticed that she has difficulty to walk around the city quietly without being approached,” Brazilian journalist Luiza Oliveira told CNN.
“We went to the Fan Zone to work on an article and she was approached by at least five different men, some touched her without permission.
“One day in Red Square, a Turkish man hugged her and took a selfie with her without asking permission. I intervened and told him he couldn’t do that because it was disrespectful. He said that the photo was for his wife, as if that served as justification for the act.”
Oliveira too, has experienced strange looks and glances in the media centers from fellow journalists.
While she is unsure whether the experiences of female journalists have been worse in Russia than at previous tournaments, she wonders whether the lack of a strong feminist movement in Russia means such behavior goes unchallenged.
“In my view, there is a strong objectification of the Russian woman, who is seen as a sex symbol worldwide,” she said.
“Russian society is quite conservative and is still far behind in the defense of women’s rights.”
But it’s not just those in front of the camera who have been targeted with sexual and misogynistic abuse.
In the UK, Vicki Sparks, who made history by becoming the first woman to commentate a World Cup game live on television when she called Portugal’s win over Morocco, received a barrage of criticism.
Jason Cundy, a former Chelsea and Tottenham player, told a UK talk show that female football commentators are too “high-pitched.”
“I found it a tough listen. I prefer to hear a male voice. For 90 minutes listening to a high-pitched tone isn’t what I want to hear,” Cundy told ITV’s Good Morning Britain.
“When there’s a moment of drama, which there often is in football, I think that moment needs to be done with a slightly lower voice.”
Cundy later tweeted an apology, adding: “There are times when you have to hold your hands up and admit you are wrong and have been an idiot – and this is definitely one of those times.”
In Germany, broadcaster ZDF lodged a criminal complaint with the public prosecutor in Mainz after its commentator Claudia Neumann was subjected to a torrent of sexist abuse online.
“Perhaps men need their little oasis of retreat where they’re allowed to be children,” Neumann told German newspaper Zeit on Wednesday.
“Certain people seem to have lost any sort of decency. Anything ‘other’ rubs them the wrong way.”
“Whether it’s female commentators or homosexual players, footballers with a migration background – some people seem to not want to accept that the old familiar things are gone.”
‘I learned very quickly’
In Australia, SBS presenter Lucy Zelic came close to breaking down on air after viewers took exception to her pronouncing the names of players correctly.
Social media was awash with criticism with some castigating Zelic, while others came to her support, including a number of immigrants to Australia thanking her for taking the trouble to pronounce names the right way.
Zelic has previously written about the abuse she has received, including sexist abuse, while hosting SBS’s coverage of the 2014 World Cup where she was called an an “ugly bimbo” and a “f—ing slut.”
“I learned very quickly to avoid my social media for a few weeks, to block the negativity and now, if I ever come across nastiness, they just look like words cobbled together on a screen,” she wrote in 2016.
“Some people say that only God can judge them but I tell you what, these days I am more terrified of the things I have to say about my on-air performances than I could ever be of any critics.”
This World Cup has already had its fair share of sexism with Getty Images forced to apologize after publishing a gallery of the “World Cup’s sexiest fans,” and Burger King issuing a strong apology after its badly advised World Cup offer.
Stories about players’ wives and gratuitous camera shots to attractive women in the crowd have almost become expected during any World Cup.
But there have also been plenty of breakthrough moments, including Iranian women being able to enter a football stadium and watch their side play, something that they are prohibited from doing in Iran.
But there is still a long way to go, according to Kestelman, who hopes that #DeixaElaTrabalhar can begin to inspire women across the world.
“It was a shock for me that there are such a small number of women covering the World Cup,” she said.
“Really, it’s such a small representation. In the media centers, when I enter, people look at me with a strange look and it’s kind of embarrassing. It happens all the time.”
“We still have a long way to walk but the #DeixaElaTrabalhar movement is helping us gain some attention and that’s a huge deal.”