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SKELLEFTEÅ, SWEDEN, AND MANCHESTER, ENGLAND, 31 MAY 2005
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The Once and Future Home of Women's Football

Tiffeny 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 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. We are not certain, but a security guard may be standing in the distance. (Video of the 31 March arrival is available along with Q&A with Thomas Hedlund of Norra Västerbotten: "Sunnanås nya stjärnspelare har landat.") Milbrett says the airport's one runway is "kinda cute."

It might be tempting to say that Milbrett and other Americans (see table) 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.

FC Energy Olympique Lyonnais Djurgården/Älvsjö KIF Örebro Malmö FF Sunnanå SK

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 far in the lead—has been the most consistent in providing a training environment for high-level women players. Taking Sweden as an example, 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 December 1921 to 29 November 1971—6 days shy of 50 years.

Significant to the inclusion of women's football in 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).


Marta signs for fans. At a December 2004 FIFA gala honoring the world's best players, she found herself in tears: "When I was a little girl, I used to tell my Mum, 'I want to be the best player,' and now I'm here." (Umeå IK)

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 13– 16 June. 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).

Link to Euro 2005 official site
FOLLOWING
EURO 2005

Home page: uefa.com

Television: Fox Soccer Channel (U.S./Canada). In Europe, games air on Eurosport (with online audio stream) and BBC2.

Internet broadcasts: BBC Radio Five Live offers live coverage of England games.

Websites: Visit the sites of host England's Football Association and the BBC for news in English. See the sites of participating countries for more on sides from Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, France and Italy.

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 at the time of 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 August 2005). | back to text

2. Dan Warren, "Women's Game Faces Catch-22 Situation," BBC Sport, 31 May <http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/football/women/4573257.stm>. For a complete assessment leading up to Euro 2005, see Rose George, "Pitch Battle," Independent (U.K.), 21 May <http://sport.independent.co.uk/low_res/story.jsp?story=640017&host=18&dir=118>. Another issue is women footballers desiring to compete with men when opportunities are lacking. FIFA decreed in December 2004 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, 16 April <http://news.ft.com/cms/s/c08c1bb2-add9-11d9-9c30-00000e2511c8.html>). That media representations of men and women in sport differ astronomically is without question.
Jemele Hill
Columnist Jemele Hill writes: "It seems the crime most female professional athletes have committed is they aren't scandalous or weird."
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], 27 March <http://www.sundayherald.com/48692>). "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 . . . ," 4 April <http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/sports/11310378.htm>).  | back to text

DIASPORAS
Sennacherib the invasive winger

Södertälje, Sweden, 17 April 2005 | Descendants of some 50,000 Middle Eastern Christians who immigrated after World War II are supplying the

Part of the Syriac (Aramaic) Peshitta, an early manuscript of the Hebrew Bible, dating to AD 464. (British Museum)
talent and support for Assyriska FF of the Swedish premiership. These Assyrians are diasporic, without a native land but numbering nearly 2 million in 82 countries (see "Assyriska Rises to Sweden's Promised Land," FIFA.com, 6 January). Many still speak Syriac (Aramaic), the language believed to have come into use among Jews of Palestine after the Babylonian exile (ca. 587 BCE). (Sennacherib wrote of a conquest in 701 BCE, of Judah under King Hezekiah: "Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage.") An Assyriska radio voice broadcasts in the ancient tongue, posing the tantalizing possibility of football commentary that Jesus would have understood. Over the past 30 years the side has worked its way from the amateur divisions to join Hammarby, Malmö and Göteborg—whom they defeated 3–0 Sunday—in the top flight. While their support abroad is wide, some question the feelings locally. One local said that Södertäljie's pride remains Björn Borg. The club offers the community 30 youth teams, including three for girls (see Alex Duval Smith, "Swedes Wooed by Migrants' Soccer Magic," The Observer [U.K.]), while retaining what administrator Fehmi Tasci characterizes as non-northern flair. "We are southern, warm-blooded people who like to run with the ball. It's good to have a couple of solid Swedes at the back. [But] we haven't had an Assyrian goalkeeper since 1987." | back to top

GÖTEBORG, SWEDEN, 1 AUGUST 2004
Catching Up, Part III: Europe
This might be called the "silly season" in football—the recently contested Swamp Soccer World Championships in Hyrynsalmi, Finland, perhaps the prime example—except that much of the competition is not silly at all. An event of global significance, the second Homeless World Cup, concluded today. Italy,

Mrs. Kushida and Yasuharu Kawarada from Big Issue Japan. (Copyright © 2004 Georg Lassacher)
organized by the MultiEtnica 2001 organization and the Terre di Mezzo street paper, defeated the Austrian representative, Team Afghan, 4–0. Team Afghan had reached the event after beating out 16 other Austrian contenders. All eight players are asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Iran. Japan (street paper The Big Issue Japan), the tournament's first side from Asia, won the Fair Play Trophy. The eight men competing for Japan sell The Big Issue Japan on the streets of Osaka and Tokyo; they purchase the newspaper for ¥90 per copy and resell it for ¥200 (about $1.80). Team member Yasuharu Kawarada (pictured above) cites his greatest possession as a Hanshin Tigers cap and defines wealth as "being with Jesus Christ."

The third Homeless World Cup is scheduled next summer for New York, with the Ford Foundation providing much of the financial backing. The practical difficulties of organizing the event and of fielding a team are well-chronicled in the New York Daily News (Michael O'Keeffe, "The Game of Life," 11 April) and New York Press (Ron Grunberg, "Street Soccer," 23 June). Both articles discuss the bureaucratic tangles involved in compiling identity and travel documents. Grunberg, the New York team's coach, writes that

[e]ven after several months of planning and twice-weekly practices, after recruiting players at the food lines and in the shelters, with all the interest we'd stirred up—we had just a few bona fide candidates who could play, travel legally and pass the medical tests. But then three new players walked in: two hailing from Peru, the other from Haiti. Not only do they have their papers in order, they're naturals on the grass.

Other complications also crop up, as social worker Zmira Amrani told the Daily News:

"We had a player wind up in the hospital in Austria last year," she says, referring to a homeless New Yorker who came apart emotionally under the pressure of competition. "We want to make sure the players we take to Sweden don't have a history of mental health problems—or if they do, that they are taking their meds."

Renewal in spirit and body, though, has been a more common outcome. Twelve of last year's 141 players are now pursuing a career in football; others have gone back to school or found other jobs. Just competing is an emotional risk. David Tajmas, captain of the Sweden team, said "at first I never wanted to play in the team because I did not want to reveal my [addiction]. But this opportunity has rebuilt my self-confidence" (Simon Reeves, "Homeless WC Finals," footballculture.net).

Other significant football and sport gatherings that have already occurred or that will take place in Europe this summer include the EuroGames 2004 in Munich, a Click for EuroGames 2004 siteproject of the European Gay and Lesbian Sport Federation (EGLSF); the Global Games in Bollnäs, Sweden, organized by the International Sports Federation for Persons with Intellectual Disability (INAS-FID); the Partially Sighted World Championships in Manchester, England, in December; and the Mondiali Antirazzisti, or Anti-racist World Cup, in Montecchio, Italy, organized by Football against Racism in Europe (FARE). | back to top