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September 10, 2009
Q&A: Women’s soccer around the world

The Worldfocus signature story “Female soccer players shoot down Turkish taboos” explores religious and cultural resistance to women’s soccer in Turkey.

Sporting taboos for women are in fact seen worldwide. Nonetheless, women soccer players have made progress — the first women’s World Cup was held in China in 1991.

Click on flags on different sections of the soccer ball to learn about women’s soccer in various countries around the world. Below, read a Q&A with two sports historians who discuss the successes and challenges experienced by female soccer players around the world.

*Data courtesy of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association. Photos courtesy of government sources and Flickr users under a Creative Commons license.

Worldfocus spoke with Professor Fan Hong, author of “Women, Soccer, Sexual Liberation: Kicking off A New Era,”  and Jean Williams, author of “A Beautiful Game: International Perspectives on Women’s Football,” about the evolution of women’s soccer worldwide.

Worldfocus: Globally, how long have women been playing soccer? How has these female athletes’ position within the sporting world evolved over the years?

Jean Williams: There is plenty of worldwide evidence of women playing courtly (in China) and folk forms (in the U.K., U.S. and Europe) before the 19th century. Women have been playing modern forms of football — that is, codified forms — since at least the 1880s. Association football has a strong history since this time for women. There is some evidence of soccer in U.S. colleges from the early 20th century — such as handbooks for soccer and hockey for girls and women — but intercollegiate games were thought inappropriate by educators until the mid 1950s. And then, with Title IX, women’s soccer really took off as an unintended benefit of wider equity moves in education.

The evolution has been an overall increase in the numbers of women playing, in spite of bans by national associations until FIFA (the world governing body) suggested national associations should take over the women’s game. Many countries did this reluctantly and slowly…and still do. Nevertheless, there has been a women’s world championship since 1991, and now there are under-20 and under-17 World Cups as well as Olympic competitions since the 1996 games in Atlanta.

Worldfocus: What challenges remain for female athletes worldwide, particularly when it comes to soccer?

Fan Hong: Traditional images of masculinity and femininity still play their part to prevent the development of women’s football. Football by tradition is the man’s game. Gender prejudice and consequent institutionalized discrimination, limited media coverage and resources and recruitment shortage in an increasingly market economy environment have adversely affected the growth of women’s football in general in the world. The UEFA European Championships taking place in Finland at the moment hardly receive any media attention.

Worldfocus: In what countries would it be the most difficult for a woman to play soccer, and why? Would you say the sport is considered more socially acceptable outside official channels — played in the streets, for example?

Jean Williams: The social status depends on regions within countries and on particular situations. Female modesty is an issue, as are issues about women and contact sports — but so are issues of resource, finance and support from male dominated national associations. Teams which have won World Cups have been disbanded due to financial lack of support, for example, so it isn’t a simple case of wealthy and western countries being more well-disposed to women’s soccer.

Worldfocus: Our signature story focuses specifically on soccer in Turkey and women’s attempts to enter the sport. Are there similar attempts elsewhere in the Muslim world?

Fan Hong: Yes, Iranian women have participated in sport actively, so have Indonesian women, e.g. at the Olympics and the Asia Games. In fact, the Iranian women’s national football team recently traveled to Berlin.

Worldfocus: How have men around the world responded to the growing prominence of women’s soccer?

Fan Hong: This differs from region to region. In Europe, North America and East Asia, women’s football has been accepted by the societies. In general, women’s football is regarded as more skilfull than men’s, but less aggressive. The future of women’s football has prospects. However, female footballers should be present in places where decisions are made about their games. In some parts of Asia, Africa and South America, men still maintain a considerable amount of skepticism and resistance towards women’s participation in sport, including football.

Worldfocus: How does soccer compare to other sports when it comes to the strides women have (or have not) made?

Fan Hong: Women’s participation in competitive football, to some extent, has altered gender relations in the world. Stars have certainly improved their personal circumstances and raised expectations of gender equality in the still conservative global society. However, football — which is regarded as the last bastion of masculinity — still resists women’s intrusion and participation. The longevity of traditional values have adversely affected women’s football. In general, some other sports which are traditionally regarded as feminine, such as tennis, gymnastics and synchronized swimming, face less resistance from the society.

Jean Williams: The “most popular sport” or “fastest-growing sport” tag is one that many sports will claim because sports development in the West is about claiming large numbers even if the person has only played once in the previous year, so these claims should be treated with caution.

Sports administration is male-dominated. Male journalists give little space to women’s sport and there are myths about women being less spectacular as athletes compared to males for media audiences. Each of these myths have precise historical constructions that we need to unpick before we can change attitudes to women and sport.

In the meantime, western obsessions with size zero and fashions for thin celebrities mean that women’s bodies have been the subject of public surveillance in gossip magazines in really unhealthy ways. The wider normalization of physically active females in our societies is one goal we should be aiming at, as well as more human attitudes to male sport — which can encourage excess and unhealthy attitudes towards ill health in the name of sporting excellence.




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Hi my name is Jennifer. I have played soccer for about 6 years now. I am writing an English paper and doing a speech on how Womens Soccer is being cut from High Schools and Colleges because of reasons made by the schools.
I was wondering if I could ask some questions. Please email me, thanks

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