A thought-provoking, and detailed statistical case study of the development and popularity of women’s soccer in Germany

Jean Williams
Independent scholar

Henk Erik Meier
The Development of Women’s Soccer: Legacies, Participation, and Popularity in Germany
154 pages, hardcover.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2020 (Routledge Focus & Critical Research in Football)
ISBN 978-0-367-35735-1

The Preface of this book sets out a clear aim: to provide ‘a statistical case study on the development and popularity of women’s soccer in Germany.’  The author has been prompted by the perception that development and popularity is ‘stagnating’ compared with its previous image as a ‘powerhouse of women’s soccer’ up until the defeat of the national team by Sweden in 2019. He rightly questions the optimism of predictions that football will automatically be more gender equal in either participation cultures or in elite player working conditions, and as such, this is an important study for those who work on international soccer.

Not least, the case study highlights the lasting effects of Cold War politics on previously divided nations, nuancing the German national experience. I enjoyed this book immensely, both for its careful academic architecture, and extensive references, and for its readability. This is not an historical work, but a statistical analysis. However, as an introductory text a generalist reader could briefly glean the key chronological aspects of the development of women’s football in Germany. So although referenced, it has a broad public appeal for those sports fans who enjoy quantitative, and statistic-heavy approaches.

What are the main takeaways for the academic literature on women’s football?  I have remained unconvinced of the broad generalization, that  ‘big, rich’ nations win in women’s soccer, especially, in the case of the United States, where there is not a strong male football participation culture. This has been argued most notably by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski in Soccernomics: Why Transfers Fail, Why Spain Rule the World and Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained (London: HarperCollins, 2012).

Of course, big rich nations tend to win in most sports, because small, poor nations often have other, more pressing priorities. There is also a strong historical gender bias, as I have outlined in my work on Namibia, that national Football Associations spend considerably more resource on their men’s team, whatever the size of the country. These bureaucracies often do not support their women’s teams in international tournaments at all, and we saw in 2019 how Thailand, Brazil and Jamaica all relied upon a fundraising benefactor as much as their national association for support.

Fatmire Alushi, née. Bajramaj (left), celebrates winning the World Cup with Germany in 2007. The number 19 was just 19 years old. Copyright: imago/Ulmer.

A more subtle point is, that given the history of gender equality in Germany, and its position in the European Union in the later twentieth century and into the twenty first century, we might expect, as Meier rightly analyses here, that women’s football in Germany would be a stronger force than it is in 2021, were the simplicity of ‘big, rich’ nations more persuasive. This said, it must be acknowledged that as well as being multiple champions of the Women’s Euros since 1989, Germany is currently ranked third in the FIFA world rankings and defended their Women’s World Cup win of 2003 successfully in 2007 without conceding a goal, a world first in both men’s and women’s football.

Meier factors in macro-economic and institutional legacies to suggest that considerable regional diversity, combined with increasing socio-economic disparity between the population in urban and rural areas, has actually led to some uneven decline in the overall number of women’s and girls’ teams, including a worrying trend for lower level clubs to dissolve. Illustrated with a number of maps, tables and charts this is a detailed analysis that belies the slightness of a Routledge Focus title.

Furthermore, in regard to fans of women’s football there is a lot of unpacking of the data that will spark further enquiry, not least the relatively small effect of fan attendance at elite league matches of a win for the German women’s national team, and the spatially constrained nature of the fan experience that negates any prestige associated with top-flight football. Put simply, it all feels a bit rustic and recreational rather than glitzy, professional football. As such, the statistical models support the overall ‘othering’ of women’s football, even in a country that has hosted the Women’s World Cup in 2011, as a sixteen-team tournament.

Young audiences do not consume television sport, or live games, in the same number as older audiences. They may therefore be as likely to consume e-sports or other activities more than large quadrennial events.

This contributes to two wider academic debates. One is that a rationale for hosting a large mega-event, such as a world cup or Olympic and Paralympic Games, is that young people will be inspired by role models. This is questionable, and part of the challenges made by Meier to common-sense orthodoxy.  Not only that, but the fans of women’s soccer are often not young or female, as FIFA and UEFA often assume in their marketing campaigns, but older men alienated, perhaps, by the excesses of Europe’s top five leagues. Young audiences do not consume television sport, or live games, in the same number as older audiences. They may therefore be as likely to consume e-sports or other activities more than large quadrennial events. So, overall, the gains in audiences are statistically encouraging, while remaining numerically niche. It is the history of the institutions of governance, and their assumptions that requires as much analysis as the situation of individual girls and women.

How might such a detailed academic work speak to a broader public? I would have liked to see more nuance in the discussion of the German national women’s team. There is a range of very active LGBTQI+ groups in women’s football, indeed this is one area in which women’s football is articulated quite differently than men’s football, and both the members of the national team, and fan groups, representing diverse communities would develop the analysis. Market segmentation could distill future audiences, and the growing regulation around the bodies of trans players, particularly at grassroots and elite level, will remain significant.

Secondly, the question of ethnicity would also develop the work, not least given the prominence of leading figures like German-African-American defender Steffi Jones, who helped her country to win the 2003 Women’s World Cup and a bronze medal at the 2000 summer Olympics. Striker Fatmire Alushi of Kosovan-Algerian heritage has written of her experiences as a refugee in her autobiography, so the wider representation of the German National women’s team at any one time will also reflect changing society. Along with analyzing inward migration to Germany’s growing urban centres, the ethnic diversity of the German women’s national team could be further explored.  I look forward to seeing this work develop.  Certainly a book to dip into, on repeated readings.

Copyright © Jean Williams 2021

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