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German women favored at World Cup, but not at home

Germany is one of the favorites to win this year’s Women’s Football World Cup, despite what many German female players say are strong negative stereotypes, discrimination and insufficient support at home.

As the 2015 Women's World Cup kicks off in Canada, it's worth having a closer look at one of the key statistics from the event last time around. Back then, in 2011, some 17 million Germans tuned in when the hosts lost to Japan in the quarterfinals: that's around a quarter of the German population. In comparison, double that number watched the German men win the World Cup against Argentina in Brazil. But that was one of the biggest games ever in German football history.

When you compare the numbers, you might assume that women's football was on an even playing field in Germany. But, you'd be wrong.

"There is very little support for them," says coach Nahed Mohammad, talking about his first division amateur women's team in Berlin. Mohammad should know: he's worked for over 30 years at BSC Kickers 1900, coaching just about all teams at the club.

And the participation numbers across Germany give an even bleaker picture. For every four boys who play in a club in Germany, there is one girl on the pitch. In the United States the split is nearly 50-50 and in nearby Sweden the ratio is only three to one in favor of boys.

But perhaps most surprisingly: The last Women's World Cup, which took place in several German cities and was such a domestic TV hit, has not really helped boost female soccer here.

"The expected boom from the World Cup did not pan out," Kevin Langner, a spokesman for the Berlin Football Association, says in summary.

German girls at a soccer match wait on the sidelines

Girls only make up 20 percent of all young footballers in Germany

Sub-standard facilities

Active women footballers complain of a host of injustices in their daily sporting life. Recently in Berlin, a women's match to determine entry into an important knockout competition was abruptly stopped at 10 pm, just before penalties because the groundsman turned the floodlights off. A storm of protest on Facebook said this would never have happened if it were a men's team. The top women's team at FC Lübars for instance could have even qualified for the Bundesliga, but will not be able to play there due to a lack of funds. That's something hardly imaginable in the men's game.

Many also complain that the girls and women can't play on the best fields and are relegated to those with poor surfaces. This even extends right up to the World Cup in Canada, where the women will play on artificial turf, despite numerous complaints and a lawsuit supported by top players, such as German goalie Nadine Angerer, US forward Abby Wambach and Marta of Brazil, against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association's plan to use the inferior surface.

Facing alleged retaliation from FIFA and stonewalling, the players dropped their law suit in January.

Historical difficulties

In truth, women's soccer has always been playing catch-up in Germany. The German Football Association (the DFB) only lifted its ban on women playing the game in 1970. Ever since then it's been an uphill battle and in many ways the limited participation continues to foster an unequal system.

Once a boy reaches 18 there are many more divisions for him to play in, says Oscar Zimmermann, a journalist and women's football fan who founded the website Dramba.de in 2009 to promote women's Bundesliga football.

"The men are structured differently," Zimmermann said. "There are more age divisions."

German amateur football side goes into a huddle

Girls teams complain about having to change coaches constantly, and a lack of access to facilities

In contrast, in most German clubs, a 17 year-old girl has to play in the women's adult league, meaning her teammates can be twice her age and often older.

"There are players on my team who have been playing football longer than I've been alive," says Verena Röder, the 18-year-old captain of Berlin's Hertha 03 Zehlendorf. There can be a know-it-all attitude among the older players, but on the plus side, younger players can benefit from older women's experiences on and off the field, she says.

The lesbian stereotype

Players and coaches don't like talking about it, but some admit that women's soccer in Germany suffers because people think that if you are a woman that plays the game, you must be a lesbian.

"When I tell people here that I play soccer they are very surprised," says Claudine Beckley, an American midfielder at Hertha 03 Zehlendorf. "Because I am a woman who has a husband and two children."

"I don't fit into the stereotype of the typical woman footballer here and I'm okay with that."

Her teammate Susi Menzendorf only started playing at 19. "My father wouldn't let me play because he thought I'd become a lesbian," she says.

Of course there are gay players in women's soccer – just as there are in men's, says Andre Eggert, a director at the FC Lübars Club in the north of the city. What's positive for the women is that they are open about their sexuality, he says, whereas in men's soccer gay players have to hide who they are and often must deal with the depression that results.

German girls watch a national team game

It's great being a fan, but will these girls ever go out and play for Germany?

Against all odds

Still, despite the shortcomings at home, numerous betting websites put the Germans second only to the United States as favorites to win the World Cup when it starts on June 6. The German women won back-to-back World Cups in 2003 and 2007 – something the German men have never achieved.

The national team has definitely benefited from having a constant coaching staff, based around long-time coach Silvia Neid, and a strong backing from the DFB. Many teams in the first division also have strong financial backing, like Wolfsburg or Bayern's women's team.

At Hertha 03 Zehlendorf, players also make another point about the ongoing strength of Germany's women's football: something a little less obvious. They say that while the problem of "football dads" and "football moms" – who constantly push their kids to do better - does exist in girls' football, it is much less than in male football. They argue that girls and women in Germany play football because they really want to, and not for the big payoff or glory.

"Girls who play, love the game," said Beckley. "They had to really prove themselves. I play with amazing players. The trainings are great. The organization is wonderful and so is the level of competition."

"It's sad there isn't more of it," she says.

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