Asian Cup prize money highlights ongoing disparities for the region's female footballers
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For the past 47 years, the Women's Asian Cup has been the premier competition where the region's best national teams can battle it out for continental glory.
Indeed, the tournament's list of winners – beginning with New Zealand at the inaugural event in Hong Kong in 1975 – traces the shifting tides of women's football across Asia: from the early peaks of Thailand and Taiwan in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the dominance of China throughout the 1990s, the emergence (and disappearance) of North Korea in the early 2000s, and the rise of both Japan and Australia through to the present day.
Next week, Asia's top teams will gather in India – one of the world's biggest untapped football markets – to once again contest the region's most prestigious title, which Australia first won in 2010 and which has been held by Japan since 2014.
And yet, despite the storied history and global importance of the Asian Cup, which also doubles as a qualifying path for the Women's World Cup the following year, competing teams have not been offered any prize money for their efforts.
That is, until this year, with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) confirming to ABC that prize money will be awarded to the 2022 Women's Asian Cup's top-performing sides for the first time.
"The AFC is committed towards growing women's football across Asia at all levels and the AFC Women's Asian Cup has been at the forefront of providing a platform for Asia's current and new generation of stars to shine," an AFC spokesperson said.
"In line with the AFC's mission to raise the standard of its competitions, the champion of the AFC Women's Asian Cup will receive a prize purse of $US1 million (roughly $A1.4 million), while the runners-up and losing semi-finalists will earn $US500,000 ($A696,000) and $US150,000 ($A209,000) respectively."
But why has it taken so long? And what does Asian Cup prize money say about deeper inequalities affecting the women's game across the region?
Prize money has become a lightning-rod for discussions of inequality in sport over the past few years.
Ahead of the 2019 Women's World Cup, for example, Australia's player's union Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) launched a campaign that drew attention to the gargantuan disparities between the prize money on offer between the men's and women's World Cups.
Teams at the 2019 women's tournament in France competed for a total prize pool of $US30 million ($A43 million), compared with $US400 million ($A575 million) offered to the men's World Cup in Russia the previous year.
Chants of "equal pay!" famously echoed around the stands at the 2019 women's final, won for a second consecutive time by the USA, who defended their world title while simultaneously challenging their national federation, US Soccer, over issues of equal treatment, salaries, and prize money.
That tournament was a watershed moment for women's international football in many ways, with prize money in particular becoming its enduring symbol for wider structural disparities that continue to impede the growth of the women's game.
However, while the pressure did result in FIFA committing to further investing in women's football, including increasing World Cup prize money, these initiatives pale in comparison to the funding that continues to pour into equivalent competitions in the men's game.
Indeed, even though FIFA will double the Women's World Cup prize pot to $US60 million in 2023, the pot for this year's men's World Cup in Qatar has been boosted to $US440 million, with the single team that wins the men's tournament pocketing $US50 million – almost the entire pot that the women's competition will distribute to each of its 32 participating nations.
These same inequalities are becoming increasingly evident across Asian football, too.
At the 2019 men's Asian Cup in the UAE, for example, the total prize pot distributed to teams was $US14.8 million. The winning team received $US5 million, while the runners-up received $US3 million.
Each of the 24 participating teams, including the Socceroos, received $US200,000 just for competing. These figures are expected to rapidly grow as the tournament, which began in 1956, expands.
Meanwhile, this is the first year that the women's Asian Cup offers prize money as a performance incentive and will only reward the top four sides, with nations that do not make the semi-final stage likely earning little more than a federation-funded trip to India.
When asked about the differences in Asian Cup prize money, a PFA spokesperson told ABC: "The disparity between prize money awarded to women versus the prize money available to men is a clear case of gender discrimination by the AFC.
"These are the best footballers in a region of over four and a half billion people vying to win Asia's biggest prize for their country, whilst also aiming to qualify for the biggest tournament on earth in the World Cup.
"Despite this, these world-class players have historically been treated as second-class citizens by the AFC.
"By awarding the equivalent of 13 per cent of the men's prize money to female players, AFC is actually compounding gender inequality and self-sabotaging the growth of football in the region."
Indeed, this lack of wider distribution of resources across Asian women's football threatens to widen the gap even within the women's game itself.
As more developed nations like Australia, Japan, China and South Korea continue to develop, under-supported nations like Vietnam, Thailand, Iran and the Philippines will continue to lag behind without significant confederation support, particularly during its most visible tournaments such as the Asian Cup.
Other confederations around the world are pointing the way forward in this respect, with UEFA recently introducing "solidarity payments" in major competitions like the women's Champions League to ensure that emerging teams are not left behind by rapidly improving opponents.
Prize money is just one of many areas that the AFC can address in its stated mission to grow the women's game across Asia.
Improvements to women's club wages, raising travel and accommodation standards, boosting sponsorship and marketing, advocating for full-time leagues, and introducing new continental competitions such as a women's Asian Champions League are all part of a holistic approach to growing not just women's football but football more widely.
By using the Asian Cup – its most visible and most lucrative continental tournament – as a platform, the AFC could use the women's game as a gateway into the biggest and most under-utilised market in world football, setting Asia up as potentially the next major continent who could shape the future of the sport.
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