There were thousands of us and no one knows now we existed’ said Lia when we met at the school where she works as a physical education teacher. She used to play football during the last decade of state-socialism and in the years that followed the Romanian Revolution of 1989. It was a huge part of her life which now seems never existed. Women began engaging in football since the ‘60s and women’s football competitions were organized all over Romania until the change of the regime. This phenomenon reverberated during the ‘90s but by the 2000s almost completely disappeared. In recent years, international development of the game has influenced local institutions to start investing in ‘the Cinderella of football’, as the Romanian Football Federation (RFF) has called it. Such initiatives unfold in a social context where for over fifty years women’s football occupied a marginal place on the institutional agenda. No official records exist of this activity being performed by women before 2014 within the Federation. It then comes as no surprise the reluctance of both the actors involved in the world of football and the public to support the development of the game for women.
Throughout this article I intend to reconstruct and examine women football players’ experiences during its most prolific times. The aim is to highlight the discriminatory practices that have been produced and been reproduced for over five decades and to show how women have negotiated their access and participation to the game. Each account is based on life story interviews framed in a context documented through archival research. The data is based on ethnographic research done over a period of one year. It encompasses over 30 interviews with former and current players, coaches, officials and parents, observations of training and games of a local team and local and national media archival research.
Veronica became a local football star during the ‘80s, a time when the women’s game was not an official sport. People passing by, would recognize and cheer her on the streets of her local town. She seemingly embodied the ideals of the state-socialist regime: she was a factory worker, wife and mother who engaged in public life through her sporting activity. Like many other players, Veronica started ‘playing football with the boys’ who would always use her as a goalkeeper. In high school, she didn’t make the team, but she pursued her passion when she was employed by a factory that had a women’s football team. Her coaches’ aggressive attitude, but also her skillful football performance, led her to relocate across the country in order to play for one of the best teams in Romania at that time. She became a symbol of women’s football during the ’80s and first half of the ‘90s.
In spite of its unofficial status, during the last decade of state-socialism, women’s football proliferated to meet the political plan of the regime. Plants and factories all over Romania instated women’s football teams and new competitions emerged. Following soviet ideology, women were encouraged to participate in sports, as a way of becoming active in public life and as a way of achieving equality with men. In practice, physically fit men in position of power restricted the access of certain social categories of the population, such as women (Riordan 1991). The equal rights regulations guaranteed women’s access to practicing any sport they wished, but some sports, like football in this case, were considered ‘inappropriate for women’ and were never officially recognized.
Women’s participation in football was undermined by the lack of investment in their activity and misogynistic attitudes. Veronica’s team had a better performance than the factory’s men’s team. For years, they were the uncontested leaders in all the competitions they played. Yet their access to the playing field was adjusted according to the men’s team program and they didn’t have their own gear so they borrowed from the men. During a coupling event, Veronica’s team played first. After, she rushed to the locker rooms to give the cleats back to one of her male colleague who was playing in the next game.
It took a long time and tremendous efforts for women to gain the public’s respect and support. When she first transferred, Veronica would often be sent during the games to ‘watch over the sauce pan in the kitchen’ or asked to make t-shirt exchange with her colleague. During a time of high censorship practices, which regulated the public display of the women’s bodies in all forms of entertainment, football created contexts in which women were placed at the center of the male gaze. The coping mechanisms developed by the players were ‘to ignore’ or ‘not to take it to the heart.’ The continuous exposure to women playing and the quality of the teams’ performances in competitions contributed to a change in the public’s attitude. The team became a symbol of the plant workers, as well as of the plant itself.
Women grew attached to football in spite of its compulsory nature. Job security enabled them to continue their participation. Being on the factory’s football team, meant that their time was monopolized by work and football and the few hours left were occupied by domestic chores. Nevertheless, due to the team’s performance, players were able to negotiate their time spent on the production line to the point where they would come to work and go directly to practice. Unlike many of her colleagues, Veronica had her family support and continued playing football even after she became a mother.
When women played, they served both as a symbol of the successful implementation of socialism and as contesters of patriarchal social norms. They were often perceived as a ‘contradictory presence’ (Cahn 1994) that threatened gender order. Actions taken by the regime in order to obstruct women’s participation stand proof to this. Banishment actions and the efforts to slow down its development are attempts of reinstalling gender hierarchies. In the following decades, when the state would no longer play a custodial role (Riordan 1991) in women’s football, these practices will be perpetuated by other social actors and institutions.
Following the Romanian Revolution, in 1990 women’s football became official and a series of actions were taken by the Football Federation in order to comply with the international agenda. The first National Championship was organized and the National Team was created. The socialist-state infrastructure legacy in terms of sport facilities and number of active players created the conditions for a great momentum in women’s football. In the first edition of the National Championship 46 teams competed. Having a consistent selection base, the National Team gained fast recognition by winning international tournaments.
Veronica experienced front seat the transformations of women’s football. She developed a career and became an elite player. Her team was the first official Champion of Romania. Supporters, mostly men came in large numbers to see the women play not only at home, but also for the games away. Being selected for the National Team didn’t have financial benefits but did bring a privileged social status. Her athletic performance and achievements were publicly recognized and highly regarded. After decades of mobility restrictions, she was one of the few people in Romania who had the opportunity of visiting other countries. Although the borders were no longer closed, free movement was highly limited by international regulations and the lack of economic resources. The National Team also meant access to better training conditions, playing against more experienced adversaries on facilities one could never dream of at home.
In the years that followed (women’s) football dependency on the state was replaced by a dependency on the market economy. While men’s football was experiencing its most prolific period in terms of international success, following the elite clubs’ momentum of the ‘80, women’s football had very few prospects for financial support or profitability. The privatization practices in Romania led to the dismantling of state-owned companies. The infrastructure and facilities, constructed during ‘the golden age’ of state-socialism, were affected by severe decay. Veronica’s team was one of the many that were disbanded during the process of deindustrialization. In the market driven economy, symbolic capital was pursued only for its potential of becoming economic capital.
Although no institutional efforts were made to increase the visibility or the playing conditions, new players continued to emerge. In high school, Ela found it ridiculous when a coach who saw her playing handball called her to his team’s football practice, and laughed. She later became the goal getter of the inaugural edition of UEFA Women’s Cup in 2001. Her path to this point was filled with situations one might find difficult to imagine even to the point of ridiculousness. Situations like those of teams not having the minimum number of players and having to compete with nine women on the pitch. Matches won because the adversary couldn’t cover the costs for referees. Matches that followed rugby games on muddy, double market pitches (for both rugby and football). Traveling to games away was done by train, sometimes the night before the game, and not in the sleeping cars. When no budget was available, Ela’s coach found a truck with two benches and some hay, which they used to travel to a game four hundreds of kilometers away.
Privatization was not a uniform process and some clubs managed to offer proper conditions to the players for a while. The players were paid based on employment contracts for fictive or part time jobs in the companies that owned the teams. But with no return on investment, club owners couldn’t support the costs on the long terms. Competing in the championship was entirely supported by the clubs. Yet, achieving performance meant higher expectations from the players in term of training and financial resources. Many times club owners preferred investing in a low rated men’s teams instead of a women’s team with good results due to the prospects of being able to sell players. Ela went through three dismantlings of the teams shed played for: one after her first team was promoted to the first League and two others after winning the National Championship title. By the end of the ‘90s ,while internationally women’s football was on the rise, locally it spiraled down. In the 1999-2000 Championship only four teams managed to finish the whole competition.
The elite players managed to make a decent living out of football, but they had insecure future perspectives, as Romania was going through economic decline. After the promising start, the RFF didn’t take any measures to encourage the development of the game for women. They played official games in worn out men’s equipment which they had to modify so it wouldn’t reveal their undergarment or they used nail polish, tape or band aid to ‘write’ their numbers on the t-shirts. During an official game in Britain, the adversary’s manager bought them all new equipment after he saw one of the players perform with a torn boot. On several occasions, while away for international games, the players were offered assistance by other Romanians, to flee the team and remain as illegal immigrants. Some players decided to accept and never came back.
Women’s football’s struggle for survival reached new heights during the 2000s. While at the beginning of the ‘90s there were 2000 active players in the championship, by 2008 there were only 350. It was a time during which many of the present day players and coaches were formed. The media described women’s football as a ‘mud fight’, outlined women’s strive and praised men (coaches, club managers) as enablers of their small victories in the grim tableau of women’s football. Men are depicted as ‘soulful’ philanthropists who give women’s teams a chance by investing in them, because they prove themselves as being ‘more hardworking than a man on the pitch’. The RFF’s support for travel and accommodation became a means of making short-term profit and clubs would appear and disappear overnight. Coaches and managers (many times were just one person) organized night travel for the games away so they won’t have to pay for the accommodation and keep the money. The situation has since changed and now only after one year of being active in the championship, a club is entitled to receive money for their games away.
In recent years measures have been taken by the RFF to encourage the development of women’s football. The budget allocated to clubs for games away was increased, a position dedicated to women’s football was created in the federation, the broadcasting rights were bought by a sporting channel and the most controversial one, the men’s team participation in the first league is conditioned by having women’s teams within the club. The current RFF president has been accused of using these initiatives to buy woman’s football clubs votes. Although a progress in terms of numbers has been made, many of the impediments players face are similar to those women faced decades ago.
Women still learn from an early age to seek male acceptance and validation in order to participate in football. Either in rural or urban areas, public infrastructure like parks, streets, school yards ‘usually used by men and controlled by men’ (Scraton, Fasting, Pfister, Bunuel and 2018:30), were the facilities where they first accessed football. Brothers, cousins, boys in the neighborhood needed an extra player, accepted, or even encouraged them to play football. Most current active senior players were enabled by men in their families or school sports teachers to pursue this passion. Alex’s parents didn’t consider football a proper activity for a girl and encouraged her to pursue martial arts. Her grandfather lied to her parents and took her to football practice instead. She is now competing in the first league.
Alex has played for the same club all her life and is now captain. The team competes in the first league, and is one of the longest-lasting in the championship. They never relegated but also never won any titles. Alex had the opportunity to transfer both to local and international clubs but her coach, who is also the manager of the club, ‘didn’t let her go’. She was bound by her contract and he asked for absurd amounts for her transfer.
Less than half of the players in the Romanian Championship have professional contracts, the others have a sporting activity contract. In case a player wants to transfer, they are legally obliged to pay the training fees for all the years they have been with the club. It is very rare in the local context for clubs pay for players transfer. At most, the training payments are paid for, or only players free of contracts are transferred. In some cases parents prefer paying the fees. For Alex her professional contract was used to hold up her career.
There are limited options for a woman who wants to be involved in football on the long term. Aside from Bucharest, most cities have only one women’s team, if any. With some exceptions, almost no player is able to make a decent living out of football so this is a part time activity. They are either still in high school, students (most of them at the University of Sports), or have a full time job that could be Physical Education Teacher, accountant, store seller etc. Each negotiate their program with colleagues, teachers and superiors in order to make it to practice at least three times a week, official games at home and away. If a player wants to relocate they have to find a new school or job and that is why many times players prefer not to pursue a career and they and up having to accept marginalization, discrimination or different forms of abuse from coaches and club managers.
Women’s participation in football contests yet also complies with gender norms and hierarchies. Women have claimed a space that is traditionally dominated by men. Nevertheless their agency and work have either served ideological purposes or were transformed into commodities and used for personal gains by those in positions of power, commonly men. The progress of women’s football has been hindered by restricting their access to resources by institutional but also individual decision making. In Romania the story and history of women’s football has scarcely been documented. Therefore unaware new generations of players must face the same impediments as previous players and have to learn on their own how to overcome them.