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Women’s teams

Soccer country is cruel to women who want to play but are not stereotypes of erotic females

In the enchanted world of clichés, there is controversy over whether “God is Brazilian,” yet nobody dares to argue against the biggest cliché of all: Brazil is the soccer country. “However, even though soccer is a target of interest and concern to millions of people, soccer is still a man’s game in Brazil. And that’s that. When a woman knows what a specific soccer rule means, she is applauded,” states Jorge Dorfman Knijnik, professor at the College of Sports and Physical Education at the University of São Paulo and author of the doctorate thesis “Femininos e masculinos no futebol brasileiro”, presented at the Psychology Institute of USP under the advice of Esdras Vasconcellos. The researcher interviewed 33 athletes who had participated in the 2004 women’s soccer championship and described their joys and sorrows. There are many sorrows: 57.4% of the soccer players from the age of 16 to 21 stated that gender prejudice was the main cause of stress in soccer; in the case of women from the age of 22 to 27, this percentage figure goes up to 50%. Nonetheless, 61% of the women emphasized that “their desire to play and their love of the game are stronger than any pressure or discrimination.”

Sports-related laws don’t help: a law of the former Conselho Nacional de Desportos, Sports Council, created during the Vargas Regime, was only revoked in 1979. This law prohibited women from playing soccer. “Given the importance and the magnitude of soccer in Brazil, which goes way beyond the fields and the stadiums, and affects our daily communication, it stands to reason that this should be a phenomenon where everyone, without any distinction, could take part; this is not true, when girls and women are systematically sidelined from soccer,” says the researcher. Past and contemporary intellectuals (among them, Gilberto Freyre) attribute the capacity to generate a national Brazilian identity to soccer; therefore, excluding the female gender from soccer is, in this context, the same as excluding them from the “all-male” nation. Many people were glued to their TV sets to watch the Brazilian team play against the German women’s team during the 2007 World Female Soccer Championship in China; however, this is a very recent “pastime,” notes the professor, and the interest in this respect was aroused when the Brazilian women’s soccer team was the runner-up in the Olympic Games held in Athens in 2004. At the time, René Simões, the coach, apologized in front of TV cameras to his daughters for never having given them a soccer ball as a gift or teaching them how to play soccer.

Women entering the world of sports used to be a complicated issue; they were obliged to use the opportunity provided by the modern Olympic Games, in spite of the disapproval of the creator, Pierre de Coubertin, in whose opinion women “are imperfect imitations and their work is to corrupt sport.” The physical effort, the rivalry, the muscles, the unconstrained movements, the lightweight clothes, were factors that allegedly softened the limits of the idealized image of being feminine and also put in check the myth of female fragility. “The female body was supposed to be physically fit for maternity,” explains Silvana Goellner, a professor at the Physical Education College of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul. The “Breton sport” was, in this sense, even more forbidden, because of its alleged violence and virile characteristics. This is why one of the first soccer matches, held in Brazil in 1913, to raise funds to build a children’s hospital, was actually a “cross-dressing match:” most of the players were men wearing dresses and wigs, mingling with some society ladies. Prejudice has a history.

“Data shows us that prejudice appears right from the start, revealing that the concept of male and female arises during the players’ childhood years. Girls come up against difficulties when they want to play or are branded as homosexuals. Straight- jacketed by a narrow and excluding gender order, girls and boys see the activity from a masculine point of view,” says Knijnik. But every action generates a reaction. “Because of the constraints that burden this activity, many girls start a career of questioning the existing gender order, which results in an identification with the male world and with soccer, a symbol of masculinity in our culture.” The researcher says it is crucial to open up the barriers to soccer in schools and in sports programs, focusing on mixed soccer matches, which would lessen the prejudice and would make the “Breton sport” into something that could be played by boys and girls.

“Another important point that I came across during my research was the fact that no Brazilian female soccer player paradigm existed. What exists is a diversity of possibilities of being a woman, and at the same time playing soccer; that is, there is a lot of female experience in the game. Therefore, when the activity is stigmatized to the point of generating prejudice against the player, this reinforces the only possible form of femininity in soccer, thus making it difficult to prepare their own identities,” he points out. This, says the researcher, confirms the existence of the feminine and the masculine in soccer, with progress being made in new forms of femininity, which sometimes break the rules dictated by social behavior, where teammates criticize the ones who live beyond those rules. “Women players still try to re-establish their femininity to fit into the social expectations regarding their bodies. Other women run away from this. It is clear to the athletes that the women who refuse to give in to masculine desires, and are more concerned about playing than about wearing skin-tight shorts, are the biggest victims of prejudice,” he points out.

All we need to do is recall the Paulistana, the 2001 re-edition of the São Paulo female soccer state championship; participating athletes could not be over 23 years of age; their hair had to be long, so that this “would be a nice tournament, joining soccer and femininity.” “The appeal to beauty and the focus on the erotic nature of their bodies were based on the argument that pretty girls would attract viewers to the match and sponsors,” says Silvana Goellner. Players who devote themselves to a game and not to this game, ultimately question, adds Knijnik, consciously or not, the status quo of the body. “The body that is unwilling to appear heterosexual, or the body that displays its homosexual choice suffers a lot of prejudice and negative stress. Because the predominant masculinity and the social controls of gender and sexuality do not accept any rebellion against such domination,” says the researcher. Prejudice leads to extremism: some women become excessively feminine; others become excessively masculine, “turning into men” in terms of looks and social awareness. “Female soccer organizes itself not only in hetero and homo groups and subgroups, but also because the athletes are forced to keep up an appearance felt to be suitable for a woman. Many players complain that the ‘rebels’ hinder female soccer and that a ‘clean up’ is necessary to fit the sport into its historical category.” The end of the story? Sponsorship.

“Many women players feel that society’s rhetoric has to be followed and that they have to conform to gender rules for sponsorship funds to materialize. Thus, players must let their hair grow, and take other attitudes that prove to the world that these women play; they are certainly not lesbians,” says the professor . Still according to the researcher, the players live with the difficult and painful contradiction that they must resemble men to play soccer and, at the same time, they have to be feminine to please gender policies, which constantly seek to veto, bar and exclude. Strangely enough, says Knijnik, there is a striking absence in this debate: the feminists, for whom it seems that sports projects are not part of public policies drawn up for women. “Women’s soccer – which I denied in the beginning because I had always believed that there was only one form of soccer, played by different people playing under the same rules; but the fact is that several forms of soccer are being created, and my research attests to this and the feminine issue here should not be used to justify prejudice but rather as a project for social justice.” In his opinion, it is possible to create a soccer and social world that differs from the existing one (which brings prejudice and inequalities), with new values, respect and cooperation, which are superior to competitiveness and commercialism.

“Soccer is not only a male thing,; it can be played by and for everyone, so that boys and girls can incorporate it into their cultural and corporal world. The creation of new possibilities for this marvelous game will move it on from being a game that castrates types of masculinity and femininity that do not adjust in practice.” In order for Brazil to be the epitome of soccer , in the broadest sense of the word, God doesn’t really have to be Brazilian. Only understanding and goodwill are necessary.