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Culture

Opinion: Kicking it like Beckham - But Not With Him

Does the World Cup success of the German women’s team mean that the female game has progressed to the point that it’s time the ladies line up with the men in mixed teams? Some think so. Unsurprisingly, others do not.

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World champions in a league of their own

When Germany’s women soccer stars came home with the World Cup they won in such dramatic style on Sunday, they found themselves in the middle of a heated and controversial debate. Thanks to their unbeaten campaign which ended in glory over the Swedes in Carson, California, Roland Koch, the Christian Democratic Union’s premier in Hessen, believes that this success is the perfect opportunity for German soccer to become fully integrated – meaning the girls should get the chance to play alongside the boys.

Is this revolutionary thinking or just pandering to the female vote? It’s hard to tell, although choosing to make his pronouncement in the mass circulation, popular tabloid Bild Zeitung newspaper certainly guarantees widespread coverage and maximum impact with many of the people who could praise or damn him in future.

A weekend of sporting success

Oliver Kahn Fußballländerspiel Deutschland gegen Island

The men are off to Portugal.

It could be excused as an enthusiastic outburst prompted by the swelling of national pride that engulfed Germany over the weekend, what with Michael Schumacher again being crowned World Formula One champion, Germany’s men qualifying for the European soccer championships in Portugal and tennis star Rainer Schüttler winning his second title in a week.

Also, it could well be that Koch sees this momentous time in German sport as the catalyst for change and for the gender barriers that separate the women from the men to come down. Sadly, if he truly believes that this is feasible, then his reputation may be at risk from accusations of delusion.

For all the worthwhile attempts at removing segregation in the sport, harsh realities remain. It is unlikely that the German Bundesliga will be comprised of mixed teams any time soon. It is even less likely that the thousands of fans across the country will ever get to cheer female sides on against male opponents in the race for the championship.

Facing generations of division

Michael Ballack, Fussballer trainiert in Wolfsburg

Where are all the women?

Considering Germany banned women’s soccer for almost a quarter of a century before eventually reinstalling the league apparatus in the early 1980’s, as a poor relation to the burgeoning male league, the odds are not in the favor of the new world champions and their colleagues running out alongside the likes of Oliver Kahn and Michael Ballack.

The powers-that-be, not only in German soccer but in the world game, are direct descendants -- in philosophy at least -- from those who have kept the game divided since its beginnings. If the Germans were to do it, where would that leave the rest of Europe…and indeed the world? Would an all-male Real Madrid be allowed to take on a mixed gender Bayern Munich?

For integration to work, it must be universally approved, with teams sporting the same number of women and men to make things fair. This would be more than a big step. It would mean that professional teams all around the world would have to field women in their line-ups. This would need a complete overhaul of the rules and regulations. The implications would be huge for FIFA, the world game’s governing body, an unwieldy organization which is notorious for its fear of reform.

Physical differences

Matthäus

Lothar Matthäus.

So what justifications are there, both for and against? Those who will oppose the idea will make the predictable cries of unfair physical strength on the men’s part as one reason to keep the women out. Someone may get seriously hurt, they may say, as the speed and physicality of the men’s game continues to claim male victims. Lothar Matthäus, the former captain of Germany's World Cup champions and the holder of the record for international appearances, has even come out and said that women’s teams wouldn’t stand a chance and that they wouldn’t meet the physical demands of even the regional leagues.

Anyone who has ever watched, or even played against, a professional woman’s soccer player will know that the excuse of physical weakness is a poor one. The image of professional women soccer stars shying from tackles or avoiding fast, airborne balls should be long dead, especially after the commitment shown in this most recent world championship.

Male pride at stake

It is more likely that there would be fewer bruised shins than bruised egos if women were allowed to take to the field with the men. How well would a star player take it if his place in the team was taken by a woman? However balanced and liberal he may be, there are many thousands who would see that as a lessening of his masculinity. And in soccer, reputation goes a long way.

Deutsche Frauen gewinnen WM

Making the game more attractive.

So what about the positives? Wolfgang Kubicki, from the liberal FDP party, has said that the German Football Association’s statute should be changed to allow the integration of women soccer players into the men’s game on the grounds that it would increase the attractiveness of the game. Presuming that he means that the popularity of the sport would grow across a mixed gender spectrum rather than the prospect of good looking women running around in figure-hugging kit bringing the crowds in, he has a good point. It would open up a combined market for clubs, sponsors and merchandisers which could generate much needed revenue for the sport.

Those Germans in favor of combined teams may look towards Italy for inspiration. The Italian league team Perugia have made their intentions known to FIFA that they wish to sign Sweden's World Cup star Hanna Ljungberg by the start of next year. A FIFA spokesperson told Deutsche Welle that the decision rested with individual national soccer associations. "There are no regulations that prevent women playing for teams, no FIFA rule, no international law, it is strictly down to the individual competition," he said.

Who'll be the bigger man?

But despite the possible financial and social benefits of integration, the task of bringing the two halves of the soccer world together remains too large and too ambitious for anyone to tackle at the moment. And ironically, given the attached machismo, there seems to be few who are man enough to grab the issue by the footballs.

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