Women’s football | Is Skellefteå, Sweden, the game’s once and future home?

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.”

Notes

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.

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