Following a month of incredible games, the 2019 World Cup draws to a close on July 7, when the United States and Netherlands battle to crown a champion. While we should celebrate the teams who made it this far, it’s also a sobering opportunity to remember the lengths many past players had to go to simply to legally set foot on the field.
As recently as the 1980s, four of the twenty-four countries involved in the 2019 World Cup had imposed outright bans on women’s soccer. In general, many of the countries involved are still trying to recover from the myopia of past regimes and the sexism of current federations in order to field competitive teams on the pitch, which is part of the reason we see nations who embraced women’s soccer early and invest time and effort into fielding world-class teams succeed at this tournament.
Decades of foolishness are still impeding four countries with recent bans on women’s soccer, to varying degrees.
One of the oldest and most respected footballing nations, Brazil’s treatment of its women’s team, even today, is shameful. Historically women’s soccer in Brazil didn’t just exist, it flourished — up until 1941, when the government passed Decree Law 3199, which mandated that women couldn’t participate in a wide variety of sports (soccer included) out of fear that “violent” sports are “not suitable for the female body.”
This didn’t kill participation in the sport, it just drove it away from watchful eyes. The now-retired Sisleide do Amor Lima, known as Sissi, explains how the ban, which was in place until she was 14 years old, didn’t stop her playing the game she loved.
I heard about this law, and I said, ‘Who cares? I’m in the middle of nowhere, who’s going to pay attention to that?’
Brazil lifted the ban in 1981, but almost 40 years later, its echoes remain in a leadership that would rather not see women play soccer.
One bright spot is that grassroots organizations in Brazil are fighting to provide more opportunities for women to develop into international soccer players. The caveat is that, unlike their male counterparts, players rarely have the support systems in place to allow them to thrive. This has led to a “haves versus the have nots” scenario, where the women receiving the most support are being funded solely by their wealthy families, moving away from the working-class dreams soccer affords to male Brazilians.
Breaking down Brazil’s current approach to the women’s game, Kim McCauley explains:
Without careful planning, however, expanding youth ranks may not help create the equitable conditions that players and fans are seeking. Girls are rarely scouted and boarded in the youth academy system. That means that girl’s soccer is open to those who can finance their daughters — which disproportionately affects working-class players, often of Afro-Brazilian descent.
It’s impossible to divorce this lack of support from the lack of success the team has had in recent years. 2019 marked the third-straight World Cup in which Brazil was eliminated in the round of 16. Despite being ranked third in the world a decade ago, recent performances have seen the side slip behind the likes of Australia and Canada, countries that barely register a blip in the men’s game, but support their women’s teams far better than Brazil does.
Similar to Brazil’s ban, Germany had its own ludicrous justification for banning women playing soccer. Instituted in West Germany in 1955, the ban stated soccer was “fundamentally foreign to the nature of women,” and added that women were “too frail” to play sports.
If you think those justifications are ludicrous then you’re not prepared for yet another statement from the German Football Association around this time:
In the fight for the ball, the feminine grace vanishes, body and soul will inevitably suffer harm.
So not only did the association think that playing soccer was un-womanly, they also thought it would doom women’s souls. Naturally this was met with outcry by players, but their resistance fell on deaf ears. It wasn’t until 1970 that Germany finally agreed to allow women to play soccer, but even then the association set forth ridiculous stipulations.
Women were only allowed to play when it was warm outside. Their soccer cleats could not have studs in them, and the ball was smaller and lighter. In addition, games were limited to 70 minutes, due to the belief this was a more woman-friendly way to play the game. This left the German women’s team woefully unprepared for international competition, considering the rest of the playing world were using the same equipment and rules as men.
Germany failed to qualify for the first women’s European Championship in 1984, but managed to rebound in the 1990s after the formation of the domestic league. Eventually it became one of the most successful women’s teams on the planet, winning the World Cup in 2003 and 2007.
In addition, the country has won eight European Championships; yet more recently, Germany failed to live up to expectations in the 2019 World Cup, was eliminated at the quarterfinals of the 2017 Euros, and didn’t qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Scotland’s history with women’s soccer is uniquely egregious, because not only did the country uphold the UK’s ban on women playing until 1971, it lobbied for other countries to follow suit.
Some of the earliest accounts of women playing soccer come out of Scotland, dating back to 1628. People were unhappy with women playing the game for decades, but it wasn’t until the Victorian era that murmurings began about the need to ban the women’s game outright. There was an inherent belief that not only should women not play the game out of their own safety, but that in playing soccer it hurt the sport as a whole, and cheapened “a man’s game.”
Attempts to intervene in women playing soccer began in the 1890s with Scottish medical professionals saying that the sport was hazardous to women’s health. The game continued unabated until 1921, when British women were banned from playing football.
Scotland is unique in the discussion of the UK football ban because, while the women continued to press for use of the men’s grounds for their games they met staunch refusal from the FA; it was then the only member state to vote against the UEFA motion that required members to actively support the women’s game. After the 31–1 vote, Scotland begrudgingly began to allow women to play soccer.
Scottish women’s soccer has struggled to recover. 2019 marked the first year the team qualified for the World Cup, and Scotland was eliminated in the group stage.
Spain is a late bloomer when it comes to women’s soccer. There’s no doubt that women played throughout the years, with accounts of the game being played at a casual level dating back to 1914 — but there was no formalized system of play until 1970, when underground soccer clubs began appearing in the country, despite a ban on the sport being instituted in 1935.
Spain played its first international game against Portugal in 1971 following the UEFA vote, but the government did everything in its power to denounce its growth. The Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) president José Luis Pérez-Payá gave a tepid response to the possibility of women’s international soccer:
I am not against women’s football, but I do not like it either. From the aesthetic point of view, a woman in a t-shirt and pants is not preferable. Any regional dress would suit her better.
In addition, players were fed false information in an effort to dissuade them from playing the sport.
There were people who insulted us, doctors who told us that we would not be able to have children because we played football.
Despite these efforts women kept playing soccer. In 1980, the RFEF recognized women’s soccer and in 1988 a league was established. Now under the auspices of La Liga, the women’s competition in Spain is a work in progress — but at least it’s being supported by top-flight clubs and pushed as a marketable product in the country.
Internationally, Spain is still finding its footing following the long-time ban. The country didn’t qualify for the World Cup until 2015, with its round of 16 berth in this tournament being the furthest the country has progressed so far.