Equality in Swedish Football

Last week, the Swedish female football team tried to discuss their way to a new contract with the Swedish football federation after only getting 200 kronas (around £20) per day the last couple of years. This reminded me of a feature I wrote about equality in Swedish football.
I was lucky enough to get an interview with the, at the time, women’s team manager Pia Sundhage who was one of my idols growing up.
The topic is still current and I thought I’d share my story here. I will also do a opinion piece on it.

Equality in Swedish Football

Women’s football in Sweden has been one of the leading forces for equality in football, and the blue and yellow women’s national team are constantly fighting for better quality football, more coverage and equal ground.

There was a time when girls were not allowed to play football, but that has changed now. Equality in football has definitely improved, and most of it during the past 40 years.

The Swedish Football Federation was established in 1904, but the first women’s team was not established until the 1970s. When the women’s team got to play their first game in 1973 they played with smaller balls, they played 2 times 35 minutes, they had less time on the field, and much less resources to become professional football players. But somewhere along the way, someone started asking why.

Pia Sundhage, 57, who was one of Sweden´s first professional female football players and who now is the Swedish women’s national team coach, remembers the time before women’s football was accepted and says, “It all started when we started saying ‘why is it different for us? We want the same as men.’”

Sundhage thinks that women’s football can give something new to the world of football, something that the male dominated sport is missing.

“What will happen if we include women’s football in the word football? Women’s football is different from men’s football, but that´s a good thing, because it gives more to the sport. It gives us more role models, a new audience which doesn’t hate, instead it cheers its team on, more audience that is not interested in violence, there´s fair play and it is a different environment to the one in men’s football. It´s a victory to have ‘women’s football’ as a part of the sport.”

The Swedish national team is known for it´s strong profiles such as Lotta Schelin, Nilla Fisher, Caroline Seger and Kosovare Asllani, and they all work hard to be, and to appreciate, female role models.

This year, the Swedish players dropped their own names on the back of their blue and yellow match kit and replaced them with quotes by strong Swedish women, to encourage young girls to be who they are and that anything is possible. The campaign was developed by the federation, Adidas and the players, and 10% of the profit went to Everyone is different – Different is good, to support girls in sport.

Sundhage is happy about the campaign but also surprised about the debate it created. She says, “What´s interesting is the debate after we launched the new kit. People started discussing Adidas and for what purpose they did this. Does the men’s team have to do the same? Is it all just for publicity? No one discussed what was actually on the shirts. What was the true meaning of the quotes?”

She continues, “If the men’s team does something, then that is just the way it is, but if the women’s team does something, hell breaks lose.”

For women to play professional football, and make money from doing so, have only been an opportunity for about 15 years, and the opportunities are still limited.

Sundhage played abroad, for the Italian team Lazio, and she was certainly not able to earn enough money just from playing football in the 80s.

Jonas Nystedt, who works at the Swedish Football Federation, says that “Yes, Pia Sundhage was a ‘professional’ player in Italy, but she had to pay almost everything with her own money. There is still a huge difference in salary between men and women, but today our best female football players can play football full-time and earn an acceptable monthly salary which is good, and about time.”

Nowadays, the Swedish national teams, both women and men, have the same resources such as training camps, travel, hotels, leaders and medical teams. The coverage of Swedish football is high and big events such as the Euro Cup games and Olympic matches are viewed by millions of people. Nystedt says, “Last year, the men´s Euro Cup games were seen by around 3 million people, and the women´s team had the most viewers during the Olympics with 1.8 million watching them play in the final against Germany.”

There is approximately 20-45.000 people watching the men´s highest division and 8-10.000 that watch the women´s league.

Nystedt continues, “We in the federation works in the same way with men and women’s football when it comes to equality in audience, money, fame, and coverage.”

Sundhage is on the same track, “There is some kind of equality, because we get to do the same thing as men.”

One of the reasons why women’s football still is not as big as the sport itself, is money. Because less people, and less countries, engage in women’s football very few want to invest in the industry. Nystedt explains, “Because women’s football is not as developed in other countries, like in Sweden, people are not ready to invest or expand. But it is growing everywhere and countries that has been dominated by men’s football, such as Spain, Italy, Brazil, Argentina, England, are catching up with USA, Germany and Sweden who already are well established. The big clubs are starting to investing in women’s football so it´s just a matter of time before they are as good as us.”

Sundhage is doing her last year as the national coach and is now on her way towards something new. She says that most people say that the next step is coaching men in the Swedish first division – Allsvenskan.

“Coaching men simply has to be the next challenge for a woman´s coach”, she says sarcastically.

She continues, “That would be the usual way, you´ve coached a national team and it´s time for Allsvenskan. I´m not sure it will work for me though. Men who comes from national teams and take over a club team are put on a pedestal; I don’t think I will get my own.”

Being a female coach in a men’s world is tough and you have to prove yourself on a whole other level.

During the summer of 2016, Lars Lagerbäck led his Iceland to a surprising quarterfinal and was celebrated for his tactics and clever way of playing. When Sundhage did the same in the Olympics, which led her and her team to a final, she was criticised for being boring and weak. They both did what they had to do, making them both look like less hot-blooded versions of José Mourinho.

“People don´t take us who coaches women as seriously as the ones coaching men. Me and my colleagues have been doing this for a long time, and very often someone comes from a men’s team and think it will be easy. But it´s not. It is very different. Imagine if I did the same? I don’t know anything about men’s football.”

Sweden has come a long way towards equality. Boys and girls play football together in school and they are not divided into girl´s sport class and boy´s sport class as in, for example, the UK. Because children in the UK learn that boys are supposed to play football, and girls are not, there is a difference between the sexes from an early stage.

In Sweden, boys and girls play together in school which makes the difference less noticeable. Although, there´s still many who looks down on women’s football rather than appreciating it.

Lisa Farquhar, 24, plays in division 1 in Sweden and says that she has experienced inequality her whole life, even when she played for the best club in her region.

“I´ve seen the attitude towards women’s football and it can be patronizing. People make fun of women’s football and diminish it. It is not taken as serious as men´s football.”

Farquhar believes that the next step towards equality in football is knowledge about gender and to break free from old patterns. She says, “I think that with more studies about gender we can challenge and acknowledge how we are effected by old patterns and outdated opinions about men and women. I think the equality lays in these old habits. We should ask the same from boys and girls.”

She continues, “It will be important to raise boys and girls in the same way, that adults take their responsibility and challenge the old ways. It´s a tough thing to do and it demands strong role models.”

Sundhage is looking at it differently and acknowledge the difference, but the difference should be appreciated rather than diminished.

Sundhage says, “Women´s football has been accepted, now I want it to be respected, that’s the next step.”

Sweden is ahead when it comes to equality, but the country still has a long way to go. The sport has to work against the norms and the way women’s football is talked about. The sport has to take away “we against them” and encourage girls to be as good as they can be. The better Sweden can be at this; the more other countries will want to follow.

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