Tiffeny Milbrett got off a plane in the hamlet (pop. 70,000) of Skellefteå, Sweden, and went through the rituals of new signees. She posed with her Sunnanå SK jersey—plastered with sponsors’ names like a Formula 1 driver’s—responded to questions beneath the flash of TV lights and, in our favorite variation, juggled a football beside an idle baggage carousel, a security guard standing in the distance.
In a video interview with Thomas Hedlund of Norra Västerbotten, Milbrett says the airport’s one runway is “kinda cute.”
It might be tempting to say that Milbrett and other Americans (see table below) are in forced exile in Europe with the demise of the Women’s United Soccer Association. But this is what women players have always done: to seek out opportunities where they exist, and even where they do not. And Europe—with the ninth official European Championships to begin Sunday in Blackpool and Manchester, England—has become the most dynamic zone for women’s club football.
Building on firmly established football cultures and club infrastructure, much is on offer for the free agent looking for a home. This is especially true for Americans, whose senior women’s national team—under a new head coach, Greg Ryan—has not assembled since the Algarve Cup in Portugal in March. A friendly with Canada at the end of June was only recently scheduled.
Historically, Europe—with Scandinavia in the lead—has been the most consistent in providing a training environment for elite-level women players. In Sweden, the first women’s football league formed in 1950 in Umeå, a northern town of some 95,000 (see note 1), although historians date the first Swedish women’s team to 1917. The latter was organized initially to play gubblag or “old-boys’ ” sides. As in England and other outposts where male-dominated sport was becoming a leisure-time pursuit, opposition to women mounted.
“There are not words strong enough to berate women’s football—” penned the sports newspaper Nordiskt Idrottslif in 1918, “if the girls or their advocates want to be taken seriously.” In England, the opposition to women playing before large crowds for charity, but also in organized competition on Football League grounds, developed into a ban on women playing on League-owned surfaces from 5 Dec 1921 to 29 Nov 1971—six days shy of 50 years.
Important for adding women’s football to the sporting landscape has been the so-called Swedish model, in which some 22,000 sports clubs fall under the umbrella of the Swedish Sports Confederation and various sport-specific and regional groups. Local clubs, therefore—such as Milbrett’s Sunnanå SK—function democratically and allow local expression of more widely held ideals.
In the 1960s, for example, as in large areas of the West, the role of women in Swedish society came into question.
[P]eople questioned, among other things, the working conditions of industrial workers, nuclear families, traditional holidays, the authoritarian structure of universities, patterns of consumption (materialism) and so forth. The new women’s movement criticized the gender order in society and the patriarchal and capitalistic structure that created and upheld this gender order. (Hjelm and Olofsson, “A Breakthrough,” 196)
Related to these social forces and preexisting sport structures, Hjelm and Olofsson make clear that “the development of modern Swedish women’s football was not a result of international influences (with the exception of the southernmost part of Sweden), and neither was it a process initiated by the [Swedish Football Association]. Instead, football spontaneously developed from below when hundreds, and after a few years, thousands of women began playing the game” (195).
Southern parts of Sweden, Skåne in particular, were influenced by the women’s game in Denmark. But places such as Umeå expressed their own dynamism. Umeå IK formed a women’s team in 1985, a year after Sweden won the inaugural European championship. Umeå ranks among the strongest in Europe, having won the 2003 UEFA Women’s Cup. They are tied for first with Malmö FF in the Swedish Damallsvenskan at the Euro break with Swedish greats Malin Moström and Hanna Ljungberg along with the player we consider the most brilliant in the women’s game, 19-year-old Marta Vieira da Silva of Brazil, in their side. (We once saw Marta in the lobby of a Washington-area hotel, absorbed in the music coming through her headphones, oblivious that her hotel was within spitting distance of a famed underground parking facility in which Deep Throat, aka Mark Felt, passed classified information to earnest young reporter Bob Woodward 30 years earlier.)
But what about the state of the women’s game in Europe in general? Some answers likely will come from a conference sponsored by the International Football Institute at the University of Central Lancashire, “Women, Football and Europe,” from Jun 13–16. Thirty-three papers will be presented, including oral histories, discussions of racism in women’s football and ideas on development.
England captain Faye White has mentioned the problem of persistent comparisons between the men’s and women’s games. White says that the ill-advised parallels are keeping the women’s sport down. “Women’s football should be seen as a game in its own right,” White says. “It might have the same rules but it’s different. The two can’t compete” (note 2).
We all need to start thinking differently about women athletes. Social structures in much of the world still do not accommodate their desires. As Elsie Milbrett-Parham, mother of Tiffeny Milbrett, told the New York Times during the 1999 Women’s World Cup, “A lot of men still feel we’re supposed to be cooking the meals, waiting for them to come home. At least it’s falling by the wayside” in the United States and other societies, primarily in the West. “We’re all going to go out and have fun, then come home and cook and clean the house together.”
There will always be girls like Milbrett and France’s Marinette Pichon, who need to express their creativity on the pitch. Pichon says of her youth in Bar sur Aube, France, “I started kicking a football when I was five. I don’t know why I did it. It was just something that happened—something inside me wanted to do it.”
1. Much of the information on the development of women’s football in Sweden comes from Jonny Hjelm and Eva Olofsson, “A Breakthrough: Women’s Football in Sweden,” in Soccer, Women, Sexual Liberation: Kicking Off a New Era, ed. Fan Hong and J. A. Mangan (London and Portland, Oreg.: Frank Cass, 2004), 182–204. A National Public Radio report suggests that feminism in the country might not have made as many advances as previously advertised (Jerome Socolovsky, “Swedes Back Away from Feminism,” 12 Aug 05). | back to text »
2. Dan Warren, “Women’s Game Faces Catch-22 Situation,” BBC Sport, May 31. For a complete assessment leading up to Euro 05, see Rose George, “Pitch Battle,” The Independent, May 21.
Another issue is women footballers desiring to compete with men when opportunities are lacking. FIFA decreed in Dec 04 that Mexico’s Maribel Domínguez could not sign for Mexico second-division club Celaya. The logic behind FIFA’s judgment? “Custom has been that men and women compete in different competitions” (Simon Kuper, “Team-mates from Mars and Venus,” Financial Times, Apr 16).
That media representations of men and women in sport differ astronomically is without question. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation UK, women accounted for 2.3 percent of images in sports pages of Britain’s media (Natasha Woods, “Action Woman,” Sunday Herald [Glasgow], Mar 27).
“The public has this problem when it comes to female athletes,” writes Jemele Hill in the Orlando Sentinel. “We don’t like them to make money as professionals. … It’s like female athletes were permanently put in the feel-good story box and never let out. We love their hard-luck stories so much we decided to keep them hungry by failing to support their professional leagues” (“Public Loves Women Athletes as Amateurs, but as Pros …,” Apr 4). | back to text »