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

Tiffeny Milbrett in Skellefteå, Sweden Milbrett arrives in Sweden, to the surprise of at least one fellow traveler. (Sunnanå SK)

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)

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