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Bex Smith interview: 'Too much negativity around women's game'

Former New Zealand captain Bex Smith pushing for change

Former New Zealand captain Bex Smith

With the World Cup to look forward to this summer, this is an exciting time for women's football. That's why the negativity that surrounded Ada Hegerberg's big night at the Ballon d'Or was so unwelcome. Bex Smith believes it's time that the focus was on the stars of the women's game...

Ada Hegerberg made plenty of headlines on the night that she became the inaugural winner of the female Ballon d'Or, but they were not the headlines that she deserved. The host's invitation for Hegerberg to twerk was seen as just the latest example of sexism in the sport and for former New Zealand captain Bex Smith, the subsequent furore was frustrating.

Ada Hegerberg is the first winner of the women's Ballon d'Or
Image: Ada Hegerberg became the first winner of the women's Ballon d'Or

"A lot of people say there is no such thing as bad publicity but I'm not sure I agree," Smith tells Sky Sports. "I think what Ada was trying to say was very positive. Her speech at the Ballon d'Or was just an inspiration to young girls. But there are so many negative stories around the women's game and when Ada won the Ballon d'Or it was negative again.

"It's great that a lot of people now know Ada's name but if the story is left there will she always just be the twerking girl? Instead, the story should be that people find out who she is, realise she is obviously a great player, and so they get to see her on TV or even go the stadium and watch her play. Unless that happens then it is never going to change.

"When you have issues such as with the twerk comment or the racism debate surrounding Raheem Sterling, it is good that this sparks conversation and awareness. But I just think that sort of reactive approach to these problems is one thing. What we really need is to be proactive. Let's change the rhetoric. Let's change what people see as the norm in football."

COPA90 has appointed Rebecca (Bex) Smith, the former New Zealand international footballer, as its first Global Executive Director of the Women’s Game.
Image: COPA90 appointed Smith as global executive director of the women’s game

Smith, 37, is a two-time Olympian in her own right and she is paying more than lip service to the idea of change. There is a real desire to drive it in her role as COPA90's first global executive director of the women's game. The aim is to promote some of the positive stories that women's football can throw up - and some of the more interesting ones too.

The conversation soon turns to Nadia Nadim, who has moved from Manchester City to Paris Saint-Germain. She is an Afghan refugee who is training to become a doctor. There is Khalida Popal, the former Afghanistan women's captain, who defied the Taliban to pursue her dream, and Fatuma Abdulkadir who is using football to promote peace in Kenya.

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"Incredible women like Khalida and Fatuma, they are amazing," says Smith. "Women's football adds so many new elements that had not really existed before. You can change culture through football on the men's side too, of course, but when you look at the stuff that the women's game is having to deal with right now, it is quite extraordinary.

"You also have these women who are not full-time footballers most of the time so they have these different elements to their lives and so there are these rich, powerful stories that can be told. I can tell you that the story-telling potential in Africa and South America is incredible, but many of their stories are unknown. Nobody knows anything about them."

Rebecca Smith captaining New Zealand at the 2012 Olympics
Image: Smith captained the New Zealand team at the 2012 Olympics

Smith would not accept that her own story has been quite so dramatic but it is still a remarkable one. As well as being an elite footballer for Wolfsburg and New Zealand, she has an economics degree, a master's degree in psychology and speaks four languages. She has worked in a law office and has experience in marketing and project management.

The qualifications might be unusual but the breadth of experience is not. "Women footballers are used to guiding their own careers," she explains. "I didn't have an agent. There were options later on in my career but by that point I felt there wasn't much that an agent could add to my career that I wasn't doing myself in terms of contract negotiations.

"Even in terms of the media opportunities, I feel that the women are much savvier in terms of the business side and the brand building that comes with being a professional athlete. That's because they have had to be. They have been forced to be. Women's football is less well funded so players take much more responsibility for other aspects of the business.

"When you look at a lot of these players' Instagram accounts and Twitter feeds, a lot of them are promoting their clubs and encouraging people to buy tickets. I think that has a lot of benefits, to be honest, because it makes you a better-rounded person. It's great that women take on an ambassadorial role, but I also think it's enough talking. It's time to do."

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By that, Smith means that the future is now. She describes the "vicious cycle" that sees the women's game ignored because the players are not household names, when the reason why the players are not household names is because they are ignored. She marvels at the improved athleticism of the modern player. "Thank god I am retired now," she laughs.

More than anything, Smith wants the heroes of today to be given that platform that her generation were denied. "Women's football is football," she adds. "It is not the world's number one game for nothing. But if you are only ever seeing one perspective then I don't think you are doing justice to the game because it is so diverse.

"When we treat women and men's football as equal, there's a normalisation process there that's very subconscious rather than overtly saying that women's football is fantastic. As you normalise that and show that women and men have the same value, you get progress. We must not fall into that trap of seeing women as victims. These players are heroes."

Stars of the women's game

Ada Hegerberg

The 23-year-old Norwegian striker scored 46 goals in 29 appearances for Lyon last season, helping the French club to a third consecutive Champions League triumph. She was rewarded with the inaugural Ballon d'Or award. "I think Ada is an amazing well-rounded person first and foremost," says Smith. "She is incredibly hard working and from a young age set out a goal to achieve what she wanted to in the game. Football is just what she has chosen to put her energy into and her scoring record speaks for itself. I have a lot of friends who played with her in Lyon who tell me she is a great team-mate, person and role model."

Ada Hegerberg and the Lyon team celebrate their 2018 Champions League success
Image: Hegerberg and the Lyon team celebrate their 2018 Champions League win

Pernille Harder

The Wolfsburg forward took the UEFA women's player of the year award in 2018 and Smith was not surprised. "The first time I saw her play I was just blown away," she says. "She is a phenomenon who will just keep getting better. She is an incredible playmaker who has an eye for how the game should be played. I even think she is one generation ahead of where the game is at now. She almost belongs in the next generation where she will have players around her who can help make the game as beautiful as she sees it. It's the movements she makes and how she reads the game. What's cool is that she is also a really good person."

Pernille Harder of Wolfsburg celebrate after her first goal during the Women's UEFA Champions League semi final second leg match between VfL Wolfsburg and FC Chelsea at AOK Stadion on April 29, 2018 in Wolfsburg, Germany.
Image: Wolfsburg's Pernille Harder is one of the most talented players around

Dzsenifer Marozsan

Marozsan is an Olympic gold medallist with Germany and a Champions League winner with both Frankfurt and Lyon. "I think she is another one who is just ahead of her time," says Smith of the 26-year-old midfielder. "It's the skill she has, the ability to read the game ahead of time and see things a split second before everyone else does. It's as if she has more time and an eye in the back of her head that helps her to own the pitch. A lot of people say she is the leader of the team but I see her as the quiet one who is always doing. She won't scream at people but she will lead by example. She is the motor in that team."

Dzsenifer Marozsan of Germany holds the ball during Slovenia Women's and Germany Women's 2019 FIFA Women's World Championship Qualifier match on April 10, 2018 in Domzale, Slovenia
Image: German midfielder Dzsenifer Marozsan is another star from the Lyon team
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