Women's football is a high performance sport, but it is different from men’s football

Jacco van Sterkenburg en Sandra Meeuwsen interviewed by Trouw

Holding a match behind closed doors for fear of negative reactions and comparing women to men in football perpetuate certain stereotypes. With the start of the Women's World Cup coming up, Trouw published an essay on stereotypes and recent developments in women's football earlier this week. Prof. dr. Jacco van Sterkenburg (ESHCC) and director dr. Sandra Meeuwsen of the Erasmus Center for Sport Integrity and Transition (ESPRIT) were interviewed to provide insights.

Dare to say it's different

Ahead of the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, the Dutch women's team practised behind closed doors against a boy's amateur team. No press and audience were welcome to avoid negative reactions. Jacco van Sterkenburg shows how this strategy was born out of fear and how the strategy, no doubt unintentionally, reinforces that vulnerable and inferior aura: "I think that if you take women's football seriously you should precisely not do that. Then you have to dare to say: women's football is high performance sport, but it is different from men's football." A player of the Dutch women’s team agrees, "our game will never be as fast as the men's. Just like in women's tennis there will never be as hard hitting and in women's cycling there will never be as hard cycling as in men's."

The eternal comparison makes it harder to see women's football as a proper high performance sport, as that battle cannot be won, Jacco van Sterkenburg explains. Men's football is the most popular sport in the Netherlands, it can be seen on TV every day and is deeply rooted in the culture. "In that sense, it is not only a comparison between men and women," Jacco van Sterkenburg said. Nevertheless, Women Inc puts this discussion in a larger perspective of equal opportunities in sport. Their conclusion is: "The moment the media broaden the visibility of women's opportunities, this will accelerate both emancipation of football and women." Sandra Meeuwsen touches on that first aspect by naming the other keynote of women's football. "More connection and inclusion, less winning at the expense of the other. These are basic values that are under severe pressure in men's football. There, winning has degenerated into kicking the other person in the teeth, so to speak, and you get away with it. In fact, we call it an aggressive style of play which is actively taught."


Sandra Meeuwsen, illustrates how historical and professionalisation delays also provide opportunities, which actually have a positive effect on this keynote. "Men's football has developed some ugly sides in recent decades: violence, discrimination, overt racism, match-fixing and gambling. Actually, it has become a concentrate of excesses, not to mention supporter behaviour." With this, however, Sandra Meeuwsen does not want to go along with romanticising women's football. For instance, she explains that it does not automatically improve because women, who, incidentally, often trained with the men, are playing. Instead, she says, it is more about the different paths to professionalisation being taken.

Through his research, Jacco van Sterkenburg can argue that there are plenty of people who find the theatrics and game misconduct during men's matches disturbing and find women's football more enjoyable for that reason. "What we hear back is that the men's game is too often stopped by hard fouls or players pretending to be in pain. Persevering, not dropping, staying put; these are often qualities that are often associated with masculinity in society, but interestingly, it is precisely in this that women's football is more attractive."

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