Mystique of women’s football shattered
By Nicole Selmer
“Everyone should be there when the best women in the world celebrate the (beautiful) game in 2011.” The quote comes from Steffi Jones following the presentation of the Women’s World Cup slogan “The Beautiful Side of 20ELEVEN” in April 2009 and is inimitably female: elegant, dynamic, technically accomplished, carefree ... in short: ‘beautiful’.
In the run-up to the Women’s World Cup, a lot of advertising went into promoting the promise of beautiful and distinctively female football – by the organisers, but also by the women players and coaches themselves. It was, at the same time, above all advertising against a comparison with men’s football. The intention was to establish women’s football as a self-contained discipline, which, while sharing the same rules as the men’s game, is nevertheless a wholly different sport.
Inelegant football, inelegant spectators
However, the comparison also lurks in the attributes which have been assiduously ascribed to the women’s game. Technically and tactically sophisticated, elegant, and with fewer fouls per game – all of this can be seen as a positive glossing-over of a slower, more languid and less athletic version of … you’ve guessed it … men’s football.
This circumstance stepped on the toes of the World Cup’s organisers and also the players during the first few games of the tournament: there were bad passes and balls taking a bad bounce instead of free-flowing football; goalkeeping mistakes alternated with missed scoring opportunities. All this inevitably soon led people to ask: where’s the spell-bounding football, where’s the beautiful game? Even in the matches involving the two favourites, Brazil and Germany, who had since gone out after disappointing displays, it was plain to see that women’s football is most definitely not always technically sophisticated and brimming with female elegance, but, at times, quite simply poor and dirty.
It was interesting to observe that, to a certain extent, the spectators also emancipated themselves and were not what was typically expected of a crowd attending a women’s match. The assumption was that entire families would go to the matches – that was the plan at least – lots of women and children. True enough, not the conventional football crowd; they’re either too young (or too old), too feminine and don’t drink enough beer. Without doubt, the atmosphere varied from venue to venue and depending on the kick-off time and fixture. Nevertheless, the first two weeks of the Women’s World Cup highlighted that spectators are not willing to settle for playing the role of a rhythmically clapping la ola crowd. The tournament kicked off with Germany against Nigeria, a fixture that not only saw little fairness and beautiful football on the pitch, but also audible whistling and jeering from the stands – which caught the reporters and commentators at the match somewhat off guard. Whistling? In women’s football? That’s not the done thing.
Not a clap-along crowd
The crowd – at the well-attended games not filled with half-interested classes of school pupils at least – was definitely football-savvy, and included teenage girls watching the Brazilian women as they warmed up before matches and typing notes into their mobile phones which they wanted to apply when training in their own clubs. Spectators muttered at contentious offside decisions or groaned when a pass didn’t come off the way it should. They were also aware of the unwritten laws: teams not passing the ball back to the opposition after an injury break; long delays before goal kicks are taken; or supposedly injured player leaping off the stretcher like nothing had happened – then the stands erupted into whistling. Sure: this is sometimes unfair and not exactly positive encouragement. But it is, after all, also … football.
It was extraordinary to hear what players from the USA, the supposed motherland of women’s football, had to say about the spectators. They welcomed the fact that the crowds at the Women’s World Cup didn’t just clap along. “The fans here are not just very enthusiastic, they also really know the game,” said Abby Wambach. And teammate Heather Mills remarked: “It’s really great to see how the spectators cheer and clap at the right time. That’s rarely the case in the USA, because they don’t know the rules well enough.”
What made matches such as Sweden versus the USA, France versus England, or even the quarter final matches Japan versus Germany and the USA versus Brazil attractive was not something specifically female. It wasn’t Louisa Necib’s fingernails or Kim Kulig’s hairstyle, nor was it elegant dribbling or fair play. But the tension, excitement, the atmosphere and unexpected twists and turns. Or even showing that a game can be poor, refereeing decisions wrong and certain actions unfair.
One of the mystiques to be powerfully shattered was the glorified perception of women’s football being a particularly beautiful type of sport, because it is a women’s sport. This includes the almost obsessive manner in which women’s football was inextricably linked with feminine attractiveness in the run-up to the tournament, no more perfectly combined than in the Nike slogan uttered in their advertising campaign by Lira Bajramaj: “If you look hot, you shoot even hotter” (“Wer scharf aussieht, schießt auch schärfer”). Sometimes, however, reality refuses to bow to the demands of marketing. The images of the German team at the Women’s World Cup, which will go into the brief history of women’s football, are powerful images without question. However, they aren’t those of hot shots from hot girls. But of an angry and disappointed Birgit Prinz being substituted, the tears shed by Kim Kulig after picking up an injury, and the vacant looks of all the players when the final whistle was blown on the quarterfinal. That’s football. And football is not always beautiful.
- Overview: Gender Kicks 2011