Football is not played in a vacuum
By Nicole Selmer
Too much media euphoria, too little action: this is the basic tone of media coverage. And too much calculation, writes Barbara Hans of Spiegel Online. In her view, the Women’s World Cup was “instrumentalised to death” in the run-up to the tournament, not least of all by the host football association itself, the DFB. The players – here, too, most of the attention centred on the German players – had been overwhelmed with too many demands, believes Hans: “The women are expected to provide a summer fairy tale, improve Germany’s standing in the world, give feminism a boost. And, oh yeah, win, too, of course. Final whistle!” This observation is unquestionably plausible, and the players do indeed have to shoulder a lot of pressure and expectations. And Hans’ comment that women football players should be as equally less sexy as their male counterparts is something which can be readily subscribed to.
And still: an instrumentalisation of football, commercial exploitation of the game and its omnipotence in advertising and the media, which is supposed to suggest all-embracing enthusiasm, is open to criticism, and, to some degree, rightly so. But to begin doing this with women’s football of all things, even during the Women’s World Cup, and to pick out the men’s World Cup five years ago as an example that proves the opposite – as Barbara Hans does – is a very naïve approach to say the least. She describes the summer of football in 2006 as so: “And there it was, the fairy tale. Not conceived, but quite simply there.” A natural euphoria then – in contrast to the one currently being conjured up artificially. There is reason to be dubious here. The men’s tournament was most definitely not played out in a commercial or national vacuum, and the millions of spectators that swarmed to the public viewing areas were drawn there not least of all by the masses of images and faces processed in the media of exactly those millions of spectators that swarmed to the public viewing areas.
The DFB is investing in women’s football and the Women’s World Cup among other things in the hope – even though this may be illusory – of bringing sustainable improvements to the structure of the league and attracting more youth talent to girls’ and women’s football, the potential for which, unlike among boys and men, has not yet been fully tapped. On close examination, this is the core task of the largest sports association in the world. One might want to criticise the DFB for the way it is marketing the Women’s World Cup, but hardly for doing so.
But it’s not just the economic but also the supposed political instrumentalisation of the 2011 Women’s World Cup which is drawing criticism. The fact that, when talking about the event and the women participating in it, words like “woman goalkeeper” or “team” might be used and that people might even be troubled by the official name of the tournament, “Women’s World Cup”, is evidently a source of great amusement and even outrage in many editorial departments and at the regulars’ table in the local bar. Colleagues Jan Fleischhauer and Harald Staun also mock the idea that women’s football – in Germany and other countries – could be seen as an emancipative movement. Lest we forget: just a year ago, the men’s “international team” at the World Cup in South Africa was widely praised by journalists as being an admirable example of successfully accomplished integration, or alternatively as a role model for the social integration to be achieved.
Football is politics
Ruhrbarone, a blog from Germany’s main mining region, the Ruhr area, takes up the cudgels for the Women’s World Cup in principle – though it is not without its spoilsports who “rain on our parade by debating about photoshoots, sexual orientation, ongoing gender comparisons, the pros and cons of higher television ratings, male commentators and interviewers […] and charged statements for and against feminism”. The liberating cry, “I want to watch football, don’t bother me with this crap!” is neither wholly unpleasant nor incomprehensible. Ultimately, it also stems from experiencing modern (men’s) football – whether in the league or in tournaments – as a game where football is the very last thing that it appears to be about. At the forefront is the media and commercial packaging of the game, the presentation of sponsors, commercial insertions, permanent sound systems in the stadium, transfer rumours and home stories. Not to mention the things that go on during bids to host the World Cup and presidential elections at the top of world football’s governing body.
Since becoming a mass spectator sport, football has become inescapably entangled with economic, political and cultural contexts from which it can no longer free itself. And this equally applies to women’s football, even though, in terms of its overall league status in Europe, it is not a mass spectator sport. Marketing women footballers as explicitly feminine, attractive and sexy is also a (political) stake in this game, as is the Nigerian football association’s homophobic attitude towards lesbians which is reflected in comments made by the women’s team’s female coach, or in the North Korean footballers’ refusal to shake hands with their opponents from the USA at the end of the match. The entanglement between football, politics, culture and the economy is not an invention of feminism, or even the DFB for that matter, but plain and simple reality. The type of entanglement, its interpretation and organisation – all of that can be debated and criticised. But denying its existence is absurd. And what applies to football, also applies to women’s football.
Nicole Selmer was born in the far north of Germany, in Flensburg, in 1970. She studied Scandinavian and German Studies in Hamburg and Uppsala/Sweden. Driven by her own enthusiasm for football, she published a Buch über weibliche Fans (“Book about women fans”) in 2004 and has been a regular contributor on the subject of football and gender ever since. Nicole Selmer earns a living as a freelance journalist and translator in Hamburg and enjoys watching television and reading books and magazines.
- Overview: Gender Kicks 2011