Zambia's national women's football (soccer) team will make its World Cup debut Saturday (July 22) against Japan at the games in Australia and New Zealand. The national team's success has encouraged many young women to take up the sport. But Zambia's football association is also investigating allegations of sexual abuse by coaches on the team that tarnished its image.
There was a thunderous welcome for the Zambia national women‘s soccer team, popularly known as the Copper Queens, on arrival in New Zealand for their maiden appearance at the Women‘s World Cup.
It’s a dream come true for the team as the supporters all over Zambia and beyond are in a jubilant mood to support them.
Most of the players on the team come from low-income households. The Copper Queens’s success has inspired many girls to take up football in a country where the sport has been dominated by men for a long time.
Babra Banda, Zambia’s national women‘s soccer team captain, says in a WhatsApp message to VOA from New Zealand on Thursday that her journey as a professional female footballer was not an easy one.
The 23-year-old plays professional football for the Chinese team Shanghai Shengli.
Banda was ruled out of last year‘s Women‘s Africa Cup of Nations after she failed a gender eligibility test due to high testosterone levels.
She is Zambia‘s first female footballer to play at the professional level.
“I started from an academy, it’s called Galaxy. I used to play with the boys’ team. I had some difficulties with my family and the parents because they wanted me to concentrate much at school, they always tell me, you can’t be playing football, it’s for boys,” she said.
But the team ‘s participation at the World Cup has been embroiled in controversy over alleged sexual abuse of female players by some coaches.
According to recent British media reports, some players were quoted as saying that it’s normal for coaches to demand for sexual favors from the players.
Football Association of Zambia Spokesperson Sydney Mungala told VOA Thursday that the allegations are not new and that the association has dealt with them.
Mungala adds that the matter has been submitted to the International Association Football Federation (FIFA), which also conducted independent investigations.
“The Football Association of Zambia did indicate that they had conducted an internal inquiry they had also handed over the matter to the police because some of the allegations were of a criminal nature. We just want the Zambian public to actually rally behind the team, this is a glorious moment for Zambia and we are not allowing anyone to spoil it,” said Mungala.
Zambia is also one of the few countries implementing equal pay for both female and male players. The Zambia Union of Footballers and Allied Workers Union is working closely with the Football Association of Zambia to ensure fair working conditions and contracts for female footballers and wants all players unionized.
Kazembe Chibale, the union‘s spokesperson, told VOA Thursday that her union is promoting the female footballers’ rights including maternity protection.
“The main objective of the collective bargaining agreement is to clearly define rules around working conditions, to ensure that all terms of employment are adhered to the same fair standards across the industry,” she said.
Like Chibale, Juliet Chibuta, executive director of the Zambia National Women’s Lobby, a non-governmental organization that champions gender equality, says equal pay for both male and female players is non-negotiable.
“Female footballers should be paid the same as the male counterparts because of the fact that the energy and also the training and also the pride that they bring to the country is the same that the males could bring if they went to the world cup,” she said.
The Copper Queens are considered underdogs at the World Cup and are ranked 77 in the world by FIFA.
But the team surprised Germany last week when they beat them 3 goals to 2 in an international friendly.
Thirty-two teams are competing in football’s biggest prize and includes teams like England, The United States, Brazil, Ireland, and Canada.
Only four African teams are participating: Zambia, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa.