Women’s football | 5,624 miles, 7 goals, 2 Portlands and 1 mole (U.S. v. Ukraine)

For the first 20 minutes the Ukrainians were able to hold their own, but after two first-half goals came a total collapse in the second half in which they conceded five goals and were lucky not to leave having surrendered a much higher tally. Sometimes statistics lie, but not this time: the number of corner kicks was 6:0 in favor of the home team, the shots were 32:3 and shots on goal were 21:0, with the American goalie not having to stretch her limbs even once. The Ukrainians’ fatigue was manifested in their slowness approaching the ball, their constant loss of possession and in many players getting leg cramps, a sure sign of not being properly rested. The fans were probably not aware of the long, arduous journey of the Ukrainians and might not have cared.

Ukrainian soccer brings to mind at once such names as Dynamo Kyiv, “the Death Match,” Oleh Blokhin (now coach of the Ukraine men’s team) and Andriy Shevchenko. Women’s soccer in the country, whose name means “borderland,” is more of an unknown. My attempts to gain information about the Ukrainian team by contacting the Football Federation of Ukraine did not receive a reply, and an Internet search for Ukrainian women’s soccer/football brought up mostly information about mail-order brides and the sex trade, a distorted picture of the women of the Ukraine, but a sad reflection of how, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, for too many men in the West sexual exploitation of women is the only association and reality (see Kristoffer A. Garin, “A Foreign Affair: On the Great Ukrainian Bride Hunt,” Harper’s, Jun 06).

From my interviews with the coach and players I learned the team is currently ranked 19th by FIFA. The Ukraine has not produced a woman player on the level of the Brazilian Marta, the German Birgit Prinz or the American Mia Hamm, but several players play in the strong German league and several in the Russian league. The league back home is comprised of nine teams, and Arsenal Kharkov is currently the best.

I remained unclear about team ownerships and finances, but private ownership is the norm, and though, unlike the men’s team, billionaires with shady connections have not entered the field, names such as Arsenal are evidence of the new Western orientation—a name that in the past would have been unheard of. The national team has become stronger in the last few years but failed to advance to the recent European women’s championship. The team has played its American counterpart three times, with the United States winning all three.

Most of the players on the team are students, with a large number of them studying in the Institute of Physical Culture and Exercise. Both players I interviewed acknowledged that the women’s game is not tremendously popular and offered as explanation both the great popularity of the men’s team and traditional Ukrainian culture, which survived 70 years of Soviet life and which tends to view women as having their circumscribed sphere, one in which running after a ball while wearing shorts is not the norm. The great financial difficulties experienced by many Ukrainians mean that there is a shortage of adequate sports equipment and, when there is some, boys receive preference.

Despite conceding seven goals, Shulha, the young goalie, was in a fine mood after the game, readily having her picture taken with local Ukrainian immigrants and smiling when I commented that the four hours she and her teammates slept the night before, they completed easily on the pitch.

The coach, however, remained unamused.

Update

Terms of a new bargaining arrangement agreed on 5 Jan 06 offer selected U.S. players $70,000 annual salaries and bonuses based on performances in the Olympic Games and World Cup. The agreement runs through the 2012 Summer Games in London.

About the author

Alon Raab is a native of Jerusalem who teaches at the University of California, Davis.

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