I didn’t grow up with the game called football – or soccer to North Americans and Australians.
But I realized I had developed a real passion for it about six years ago after watching second-division Union Berlin play a goalless draw against SSV Reutlingen on a rainy Wednesday evening. I knew at that point I was hooked.
I loved the play-like-your-life-depends-on-it intensity, the fervour and the unpredictability, as well as the groans and the cheers of the crowd.
Since then I’ve been to all kinds of matches in all kinds of stadiums: top-notch national sides battling it out during the 2006 World Cup and Bundesliga ties all over Germany. I’ve seen Zidane, Ballack, Beckham and loads of less-talented players. I’ve enjoyed watching youth league battles (once featuring a young Mesut Özil) as well as a spirited fourth-division face-off in sleet and rain.
I love the game for its beauty and athleticism. It can even be therapeutic at times: There’s something hugely relaxing about hanging out on the sofa while 22 men slog it out on the pitch on your TV.
And now there’s the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup – the 20th anniversary of the tournament. Living in Germany, there’s no escaping the media buzz surrounding it – though many of the headlines have focused more on German players posing for Playboy rather than their footballing talents.
Playmates or players?
I’m already sick of the sexual stereotypes and clichés being rolled out ahead of the Women’s World Cup. Has anyone seen the new Barbie with the matchstick legs that’s supposed to resemble athletic German striker Birgit Prinz? Or there’s the TV advert showing a few German players variously whipping out a lipstick and painting their lips, applying mascara and rouge – all this in the midst of a sweaty game. The slogan? “The most beautiful World Cup ever.”
But worst of all –I just don’t seem to like the game. I had watched bits of women’s football earlier, admittedly, only on TV – none of which grabbed me. But this time I was determined to give it a real chance. I really wanted to like it.
So last week, with my husband away, I settled down to watch Germany play Norway – billed as the last big game before the World Cup. It wasn’t easy.
I managed to get through the first 15 minutes without switching channels. But there was one question on my mind: Sorry girls, but why should I watch this?
I just couldn’t bear to watch the slow pace, the imprecise passing, the frustrating loss of ball that interrupted play like stop-and-go driving in heavy traffic, a whacking header by a much-touted striker – except it was aimed in the wrong direction. It’s just not the game I love. Somehow it felt wrong.
Germany did go on to eventually win by three goals – all scored in the space of four minutes – but I missed them all because they took place after 75 minutes. I had long passed out on the sofa by then. What’s wrong with me?
I know it’s unfair to compare women’s football to the men’s game. I’ve certainly watched plenty of men’s matches that are downright disheartening – just think of some of the dreadful first round ties during the World Cup in South Africa last year.
And I know there are talented women footballers out there. Just as I realize that there are plenty of people who are interested in this tournament. Apparently many matches in Germany are already sold out.
The hype gap
So don’t get me wrong. I genuinely think it’s great if girls play football if it empowers them and they enjoy it. I’d love it if my daughter opted to play the game. I was even moved to tears by a recent article about Steffi Jones, a former Germany player who is now the head of the nation’s World Cup organizing committee. Football offered her a ticket out of a rough Frankfurt neighbourhood and helped her overcome huge personal odds.
But the problem is this – there’s a huge gap between hype and reality where it matters – on the pitch. It’s just no fun watching women’s football.
Am I guilty of abandoning my feminist ideals for being unable to muster up enthusiasm for the Women’s World Cup? None of my girlfriends plan to watch it, nor are the hard-core football fans I know.
I’d already pictured myself sitting on our sofa forcing myself to watch a few games mainly out of a sense of female solidarity. But now I’ve sought comfort in a piece of news my husband gave me a few days ago – it turns out our upcoming vacation abroad coincides exactly with the opening and closing dates of the women’s World Cup in Germany.
Now I have the perfect excuse for giving it a miss.