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The Rise of Women’s Soccer in the US

While women have been involved in sports on the peripheral for centuries, national and international leagues for women are a new endeavour. In the United States in particular, the 1970s became a revolutionary time for women to engage with soccer, and other sports, without any fear of social repercussion and led to the formation of a national league.

Within 20 years, from the 70s to the 90s, the US women’s national team won the Olympic soccer games (1996), and went on to become World Cup champions only three years later in 1999. Unlike female players in Europe and South America, there was less stigma around women playing sports in the US. In fact, the early integration of women’s soccer into collegiate leagues made an early link between education and success with female athletes.

And, compared to the men’s national team, the US women’s team is easy to praise. The women’s national team has taken four World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals. Unlike the women’s team, the US men’s team has never made it past a World Cup quarterfinals. However, female leagues have consistently drawn in less investment and less crowds than male counterparts around the world.

Women’s Soccer Abroad

The US women’s team hasn’t faced stiff competition due to the slow rise of women’s soccer in Europe and South America – until recently. This is a strange case, considering FIFA first recognized an international soccer game between the Netherlands and France way back in 1971 and, in terms of national and club play for men’s soccer, Europe and South America consistently produce the highest level of play and the strongest pedigree of player.

Today, there are 33 women’s soccer leagues around the world. The majority are based in Europe, though South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Nigeria, South Africa, and Tanzania also have elite leagues. And in South America, Brazil and Colombia now have their own women’s leagues. There are more than 29 million women playing soccer around the world today, and many European leagues have begun to attract investment from male clubs, like Manchester United and Real Madrid. While the tides seem to be shifting toward the creation of high-powered and high-paying EU women’s clubs, there are some notable absences.

Eastern Europe seems bereft of elite soccer leagues despite being situated in the global hotbed for competitive soccer play. Overseen by UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations, no women’s team from Eastern Europe has made more than a brief appearance in the World Cup. Many countries also lack any formal national team – and this doesn’t just go for women’s clubs.

For instance, FC BATE Borisov, the top male soccer club in Belarus, has a stadium that can fit up to 12,000 spectators despite the fact that the team with the best odds in the Belarusian Premier League, FC Bate, has never made waves in the UEFA Champions League. Compare this to Nippon TV Beleza, top team of Japan’s Division 1 female Nadeshiko League, who play regularly at a stadium that fits up to 10,000 in Tokyo’s Inagi district despite seeing lower numbers as a female league. While Japanese soccer is played at a high level, European soccer tends to be considered the focal point for talent. So, why is there no women’s league in Eastern Europe?

Tobin Heath

Women’s Soccer in the EU

Europe is the epicenter for women’s soccer leagues. Countries like Spain, Norway, Malta, and Greece have leagues while other countries, such as the UK, have a total of five leagues spread between Wales, England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. A report from UEFA in 2016 indicates that over 1 million women across Europe identify as soccer players, and some countries, like the soccer-crazed Spain, saw upwards of 44,000 women register to play for the 2017-18 season alone.

Major sponsorships from companies such as Iberdola have helped the leagues gain funding and attention from the public. Not only are these sponsorships important for the proliferation and development of women’s soccer leagues, but also the myriad of other concerns that accompany a successful soccer franchise—from equipment, to coaches and staff, to young player development programs. Stadiums are another important consideration for any successful club, especially considering the 60,000 spectators drawn in for the women’s Atlético Madrid – FC Barcelona game that took place in March of 2019 in Spain.

Meanwhile, in Eastern Europe…

Attempting to investigate women’s soccer in Eastern Europe yields little information or news. In fact, the men’s leagues, especially the Ukraine’s Premier League, have been associated with questionable dealings and inconsistent records. The UPL’s top team, Shakhtar Donestk, has drawn in considerable negative attention from national and international press.

While UEFA continues to incorporate Eastern European teams from the likes of Romania, Russia, Ukraine, and Slovenia, many think that this integration has been rushed. Not only are the teams under-qualified, but the linesmen and referees, who are also aggregated from participating countries, have showed similar lack of professional development.

Russia’s U19 UEFA women’s team has made scant appearances in the UEFA’s continental league, with a highest placement of fifth place. Many attribute this lack of women’s soccer with cultural values of Eastern Europe, in which a woman must navigate social expectations and responsibilities if she wants to step on the soccer pitch. Others also note that the rise of women’s soccer in most places outside the US has been dependent on male soccer leagues, not only for investment in female clubs, but also to help siphon off fans from the male-dominated clubs and leagues. If Eastern Europe doesn’t produce male leagues that are popular and lucrative enough to help develop female leagues, there may be less resources to help women play the sport.

Oddly enough, the introduction of women’s leagues in Eastern Europe may take a similar path that women’s leagues in Eastern Asia took. In the 1980s, women’s soccer in Japan wasn’t anywhere near today’s standards. Tournaments had different rules, balls were sized for women, halves were only 25 minutes long, hand balls were permitted if they protected the chest, and the entire pitch was smaller. After the first women’s league was nationalized in 1989, conditions improved, and standards were raised to align the league with male rules. While the women’s leagues seemed to fluctuate along with the economy, Japan’s national women’s team would go on to defeat the US team in the 2011 World Cup.

Within only 20 years of regulated play, Japan was able to create an unstoppable team that became champions of the world. In fact, the country is making a bid right now to host the upcoming 2023 Women’s World Cup. With so many top-rated leagues nearby in Western Europe, Eastern Europe has ample opportunity and resources to begin fostering elite women’s leagues and, like Japan, may not need much time to accomplish this.

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