Wednesday, June 12, 2024

European women’s football—still a cold-war divide

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As the women’s Euros near their climax, why have teams from central and eastern Europe again been absentees?

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Up popped Popp—Germany’s victory over Austria in the quarter-final was the closest the competing teams came to central and eastern Europe (BBC)

At international women’s football tournaments, national teams from central and eastern Europe (CEE) seem rarely to appear. Teams from the former Soviet bloc have only participated in the World Cup twice: in 1999 and 2003 in the United States, the Russian team qualified, losing in the quarter-finals. Similarly, in the European championships no country from the region has ever won a medal.

The same pattern is seen in club football—no CEE women’s club has ever won a European cup competition. The closest any has come was when the, again, Russian women’s team Zwiezda 2005 Perm (Звезда-2005 Пермь) made the final in 2009 of the predecessor to the women’s Champions League.

Why does women’s football appear to have developed much more slowly in eastern Europe? There are five main factors.


‘Socialism’ and stereotypes

First is history. Women’s football arrived relatively quickly and developed relatively vigorously in eastern Europe, where women began to play at the beginning of the 20th century. The first games had however only an unofficial and private character. Before the first world war, though, there were already three official teams in the Moscow region. The situation was similar in Poland, where the first women’s teams were formed after the achievement of national independence in 1918—the first in 1921, with more added gradually in the following years.

Secondly, there is politics. In the state-socialist era, women’s football developed in stages corresponding to the different political-ideological periods of the Communist system in CEE countries. For example, the Czechoslovak team was established as early as 1968, making it one of the first in the world. This was however only possible during a (rapidly truncated) political opening—the ‘socialism with a human face’ of the Prague Spring.

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Thirdly, there are gender stereotypes. While a Soviet-led narrative of ‘progress’ did lead to some female emancipation in sport, the prevailing assumption was that central and eastern Europe comprised essentially rather traditional, patriarchal societies. While the picture is differentiated, the Communist era failed to establish gender equality, which was not a political priority—given, as the official claim went, under Communism everyone was already equal anyway.

For the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia, joining the European Union in 2004 created an opportunity, given the influence of western women’s movements on the EU. But the social and political situation in women’s football did not change fundamentally and nor did access to new potential sponsors substantially materialise.

A decade or so later, a conservative turn was in any event evident in many CEE countries and in the past couple of years, with ultra-conservative parties engaging in ‘state capturing’ and ‘Caesarean politics’, gender equality has reversed, particularly in Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. This has been associated with a diminishing public presence of women’s sports—their teams lack the equipment, support and professionalism expected in the west.

In Russia specifically, under Vladimir Putin the status of women has regressed virtually to the Stone Age, with women repressed in many ways, activists (such as Pussy Riot members) jailed and few women in leading positions. Amid anti-globalism, re-nationalisation and de-internationalisation, CEE states have retreated in gender terms from the re-globalisation process, and the football industry is mirroring this societal involution.

Fourthly, there have been the huge economic challenges. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the economy of the region imploded and sport became one of the most neglected areas of social life, left severely underfunded having previously enjoyed substantial state support. The atmosphere was particularly bad around football, which in the 1990s became mainly associated with the excesses of stadium hooligans, who reflected and contributed to political unrest, collective pessimism and general anomie. Changing cultures is extremely difficult—including in sports—and this culture of neglect has to some extent continued to the present.

Finally, those ultras. Football in the region is directly and constantly politicised. The hooligans belong to political groups, with predominantly right-wing or far-right associations. Apart from a small incidence in eastern Germany, left-wing groups of supporters are either absent or play a marginal role. For the hard right, football is an outlet for and expression of political inclinations. Although this has been predominantly a male phenomenon, it has also affected women’s football.

Lagging behind

As a combined effect of the history, politics, gender stereotypes, economic shortfalls and hooliganism, women’s football does not generate much spectator interest among CEE fans, which translates into a lack of sponsors and correspondingly lower remuneration. As in most European countries, it definitely lags behind men’s—in terms not only of fan and media engagement but also financial and organisational effort.

Although support for men’s teams dominates across almost all sports in the region, it is most evident in football. Research on women’s football, as the lack of comprehensive scientific studies shows, has also been very slow to develop.

Yet despite all these hurdles, there are increasing efforts in CEE countries to improve the quality, standing and relevance of women’s football and promote it in the public sphere. For example, the Polish Football Association has allocated funding each year to subsidise women’s football leagues and the functioning of the national team. Although this remains significantly lower than the expenditure on men’s football, it nevertheless has been steadily increasing—from zł3 million (some €700,000) in 2012 to zł14 million (roughly €3.5 million) seven years later.

Football is far behind other women’s team sports in terms of public interest: volleyball and basketball are much more popular across the region. Yet, seen through a historical lens, over past decades the former German Democratic Republic has been an example of progress which could be copied by other countries.

Despite having a relatively successful men’s national team and women’s football emerging from the 1960s, typically of the state-socialist period the GDR women’s national team was not established until 1989. After German reunification, however, significant funding and structural changes saw women’s football begin to grow rapidly—even leaving men’s behind. Today, Turbina Potsdam is one of the top clubs in the women’s Bundesliga. Similar efforts are under way in the Czech Republic, where the Prague-based clubs Slavia and Sparta are becoming increasingly important.

Professionalisation and popularisation

Further development will undoubtedly require not only increased funding but also the professionalisation and popularisation of the discipline. This is linked to, among other things, better research on women’s football and more direct support from sports and health sciences.

The pandemic has brought insights into how women get sick in different ways from men and research on the differences between the bodies and psyches of men and women has made huge progress. For instance, it has induced differentiated timeframes for training (for men it is apparently better to train in the evening, for women in the morning to achieve the maximum positive effect for their bodies and their feeling of wellbeing). If all this leads, for example, to ‘precision medicine’ that differentiates between men and women, this will hugely affect sport science in general, and football science in particular, in the coming years.

There could be a more diversified push for gender-sensitive football and, in accordance with the gender focus of the new strategy of the United Nations Economic, Social and Cultural Organization, for gender equality in sport in general. The times ahead could be fascinating for women’s football. England 2022 might just be the beginning of its next stage of evolution.

Roland Benedikter is co-head of the Centre for Advanced Studies of Eurac Research in Bolzano/Bozen, Italy, and co-author of Football Politics in Central Europe and Eastern Europe (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).

Dariusz Wojtaszyn is professor of modern history at the Willy Brandt Centre of Wrocław University in Poland and co-author of Football Politics in Central Europe and Eastern Europe (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).

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