This Sunday, June 26, sees the opening of the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany. On the eve of what is proving to be an increasingly popular tournament among the media and public, I assess the Germany team, the public reaction and the inescapable sexism which surrounds women’s football.
Were it not for the centuries of oppression, disregard and abuse that has been their lot in life ever since Early Man found out that he was slightly more capable of beating up a wild bison than his wife was, the women of Europe might be considering themselves a little unjustly analysed in recent months; for all the burnt bras and Emmeline Pankhursts that the last century has born witness to, the build up to the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany this summer has been decidedly mixed. Everything from bigoted scorn to patronising self- righteousness has been poured into the coverage and response to the approaching tournament in the past weeks, but it is solely on the football that the world’s most talented female footballers will be concentrating between now and mid July.
The German press, in any case, has provided a happy exception to the sexism – overt or subtle – that has plagued the tournament build up; kicker’s “Starke Frauen – ganz persoenlich” series has provided a detailed and original approach to introducing the public to the Germany players, while the national dailies have rarely failed to give the impressive women’s team detailed and frequent coverage. And who could blame them? Perhaps it is simply a result of the fact that they are the host nation that Germany is becoming so excited about the Women’s World Cup, but a more likely cause would have to be the quality of the team representing them. Tournament favourites at 9/10, the Germany team has impressed no less than they were expected to in recent weeks, with emphatic victories over Norway, Italy and the Netherlands. Silvia Neid’s team have conclusively displayed their creative capacity, and will rightly be the team to beat once the tournament starts this week.
In terms of depth, furthermore, Germany’s women have few problems. Most notable in this regard is the case of talismanic captain Birgit Prinz. The three time World Female Footballer of the year, and most recognisable face in German women’s football has this week confirmed her retirement, come the end of the World Cup. Her decision is impeccably considered. Despite a fiercely significant influence over her team mates, and a record for the national team which would impress even those most staunchly indifferent towards women’s football (at the age of 33, Prinz has represented her country on 212 occasions and has scored 128 goals), Prinz’s place in the team of late has been less and less affirmed. She rarely completes a full ninety minutes these days, and the hypotheses over her successor are more frequently suggested than managerial change at VfB Stuttgart. The latest pretender to the Prinz’s throne comes in the form of twenty year old Alexandra Popp, a celebrated young forward from FCR Duisburg. When dutifully doing her kicker interview last week, Popp diplomatically brushed off the supposed rivalry with Prinz, but she remains inescapably a symbol of a new generation of German women’s football, which could prove to be even more impressive than the last.
That Prinz will play in this summer’s World Cup, however, feels undeniably correct. The woman who has led her country to World Cup glory on two different occasions has earned her reputation as the most known female footballer in Germany, and that she will front the team as they entertain their home fans this summer will be truly significant in terms of national fervour. Though nowhere near as electric as it was during the Men’s World Cup of 2006, the atmosphere in Germany is happily expectant; the Germans, it seems, simply cannot resist the excitement of a home World Cup. Sticker collection manufacturer Panini have had to succumb to demands for a greater production level, after their dutiful distribution of a FIFA Women’s World Cup collection in Germany proved to be a resounding success, selling out before the start of the tournament itself, while the kicker-Sonderheft on the tournament has been similarly popular. Of the nine cities which will host the tournament, furthermore, seven are home to Bundesliga clubs, while the other two, Frankfurt and Dresden, are hardly unknown in the football world. The stage is set for a major national event – the German public expects, and the presence of such an iconic figure as Prinz will be yet another catalyst for the confused, tentative paradox which is nationalistic pride in modern Germany.
There are some who argue that the women’s game is unenjoyable; they protest that their attitude is not sexist, but simply aesthetic – that the skill level and the pace of the Women’s game can never hope to match that of the men’s game, for biological, rather than gender reasons. Even leaving aside the fact that those who effectively say “I’m not being sexist but women are biologically inferior when it comes to sport” are often the same delightful chaps who bemoan a perceived inverse racism whenever a black athlete proves himself to be faster than his white opponent, this argument should be swiftly dismissed. Casual sexism, one can just about ignore; uninformed casual sexism less so. The Germany team are a perfect example of the wonderful showcase of skill women’s football can be, and any who claim that the strength and pace of the women’s game is unimpressive, I can only advise to look up the recent picture of VfB Stuttgart player Kim Kulig training with a punchbag. Such a sight would strike fear into the hearts of most smug, “casual” sexists.
The aforementioned kicker interview series has also exposed a crucial element in which women’s football may consider itself superior to its male equivalent. The “Starke Frauen – ganz persoenlich” interviews have done exactly what they say on the tin, and offered an insight into the players which goes far beyond their footballing talent: Babett Peter is “more than just nice Babs”; Popp is the “reluctant goalscorer” and Ariane Hingst is the “spontaneous slow burner”. Each interview takes an angle, and proves to be as interesting and memorable as the last. Such a display of genuine character is a trait distinctly lacking in the men’s game; with the lack of multi million pound Euro salaries or the death traps of weekly sex scandals the soundbite diplomacy of pleasant but uninteresting young players is nowhere to be seen in women’s soccer.
That is not to say that the build up to the Women’s World Cup has been without controversy. Last month saw a number of German female footballers pose in what can very loosely be described as Germany football strips – strip being a more appropriate word than kit, one feels – for Playboy magazine. Not an ideal situation to say the least, although given that the majority of Playboy’s pitiable readership will probably be the sort who pour fearful and insecure scorn onto the women’s game anyway, perhaps it was a canny publicity stunt. Any excited adolescents hoping for a discreet flash of German side boob though, will be firmly disappointed at the World Cup. Despite Sepp Blatter’s best efforts, the Women’s World Cup remains, thankfully, a sporting rather than a sexual event, and it is the football which will impress the world in the coming weeks. Germany awaits with bated breath, and one cannot help but observe that the excitement with regard to this tournament is not as muted as it has been on previous occasions. In Germany at least, this tournament has dragged Women’s football from a divisive side lane into the bustling metropolis of mainstream culture. With teams like Germany, players like Prinz, and prize tossers like Blatter, let us hope it can stay there.
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