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SPORTS-GERMANY: Women Take the Football Field

Maricel Drazer

DÜSSELDORF, Germany, May 19 2008 (IPS) - “Football is not a sport for women,” Peco Bauwens, then president of the German Football Association, said in 1955, adding “we will never take this issue seriously.”

History has proved the contrary. More than one million women play football in Germany today, and according to official figures from the International Football Federation (FIFA), 26 million women participate in football associations all over the world.

Never before have so many women played football in Germany. The current number of 1,002,605 women players, confirmed by the German Football Federation (DFB), was welcomed with glee by the women’s association, where it was hailed as “the most important membership statistic of 2008.”

“Women are taking their rightful place, and increasingly conquering male domains,” professor of sports pedagogy Claudia Kugelmann told IPS. “This is a stride forward, in terms of equal opportunities.”

Her view is shared by Professor Gertrud Pfister, who holds a doctorate in education sciences and psychology and is an expert on the history of sports and the role of women in the field. The rising number of female football players “contributes to countering women’s image of weakness and their marginalisation in society,” Pfister told IPS.

“But often prejudices are difficult to uproot, in spite of the evidence against them. Even today, many male football fans continue to make a distinction between ‘real’ football and women’s football,” she said.

“As a football player, one is up against prejudice all the time. Many people ask me why I am so excited about a man’s sport,” football player Annika Leber recently told the national press.

Hildegard Junker, a defence player, said she had also heard comments like: “What are you doing running around here? Go and cook for your husband and kids, they’re waiting for dinner!”

In fact, women were officially banned from playing football in 1955 because, it was argued at the time, they “lacked the physical and psychological attributes” necessary for the game.

Only in 1970 did the DFB lift the ban, on condition that women should play “only in the warm months.”

More than two decades would have to pass before the first FIFA-recognised Women’s World Cup was held in 1991 in China, a belated recognition of women’s participation in the game, which had been going on for decades and is growing fast in many countries.

Professor Kugelmann stated that “much has happened, but there is still more to be done.”

“Certainly, there is still discrimination, especially in the smaller clubs,” she said. “Where there are few resources, and not enough money or space, women’s teams are always at a disadvantage.”

However, the number of women football players is growing rapidly worldwide, at a rate significantly above that of the men.

According to the latest statistics available from FIFA, the number of registered women players rose by more than 50 percent between 2000 and 2006, while the number of male players has grown by only 21 percent over the same period.

Germany holds the European record, and is among the foremost countries in the world for the number of women players registered with football associations.

“I think football is a good example of women’s general development and their growing influence,” said Professor Pfister.

“Today women take on leading political positions, which they could not do 40 years ago, as in the case of Angela Merkel,” Germany’s first woman chancellor, she said.

She also said it was “good for women to have the opportunity to participate in a team sport, as they acquire different experiences than in solo activities, working out in a gym, for example.”

“I think it is positive for women to have new models that are more sports-oriented, rather than focusing on external appearances and looking good,” she said.

Meanwhile, Hannelore Ratzeburg, the vice-president of the DFB and chair of the women’s football department, said that “having so many girls and women as active members of associations creates excellent prospects in this country for the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup,” which will be hosted by Germany.

“I’m convinced that this positive trend will continue,” said Ratzeburg.

That is saying a lot. The German national women’s team, the reigning champion, defended its title successfully in 2007 in China, and is going for the Women’s World Cup again in 2011, this time as the home team.

The women’s championship will be held in a country where football is almost a religion. When the FIFA World Cup was held here in 2006, Germany came in third, and the celebrations and the identification of the people with their team were so great that national flags were waving as they had not done since the post-war years.

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