There is no doubt that so far Euro 2017 has been a great success and a credit to women’s football. TV audiences are going up – the audience for Holland’s first game was 172 per cent up on their opener four years ago even though the event is in Holland so people who might have been watching on TV had the event been played elsewhere were watching in the stadium. Also the games are getting more competitive despite the event being expanded to sixteen teams. There has only been one mismatch (England v Scotland) as the players benefiting from an increase in professionalism are fitter and stronger than ever before. What used to be a predictable event has produced shock results. For example 2013 runners up Norway have crashed out of the tournament without winning a point or scoring a goal and already eliminated Italy defeated Olympic silver medalists Sweden 3-2 last night. It is clear that women’s football is both improving in standard and increasing in popularity.
But there is one big anomaly. Last night Russia were eliminated. The country did not disgrace themselves – in fact by beating Italy 2-1 they won their first match at a Euro at their thirteenth attempt and in their fourth Finals tournament – but Russia were the only Eastern European country (meaning the countries of the old Warsaw Pact plus the old Yugoslavia) to play at the event. This is a big contrast to men’s football (the 16 teams in Euro 2008* included five teams from Eastern Europe). Nor is this situation unique to this tournament. In all the women’s European Championships eighteen countries have taken part only two of them from Eastern Europe (apart from Russia Ukraine qualified in 2009). Ukraine won one meaningless game at that tournament meaning that counting this year Eastern European teams have won two out of eighteen games at women’s Euros.
I find that a baffling statistic. Now it could be said that Eastern Europe is a sexist part of the world but it has a good record in women’s sport that is not football. An example of this is in “Playing With the Boys” by Eileen McDonough and Laura Pappano (page 204) “America was losing the athletic cold war and one big reason, political leaders concluded, was because US females were being soundly beaten by their Soviet rivals. At the 1960 Olympic Games, for example, Soviet women earned twice as many medals as American women, 28 to 12”. So it was clear that at least before the passing of Title IX and the collapse of Communism Eastern European female athletes were superior to their American and Western European counterparts.
Another example is the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) rankings. Remember only one of the top sixteen women’s football teams in Europe is Eastern European (Russia). In contrast eleven of the top sixteen European WTA players represent Eastern European countries. Women from the Czech Republic, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Latvia and Slovakia are among the list including new World number 1 Karolina Pliskova, number 2 Simona Halep and the sport’s newest Grand Slam Champion Alona Ostapenko. To add to this four of the top sixteen European WTA players who do not represent an Eastern European country had at least one parent from Eastern Europe (Angelique Kerber, Johanna Konta, Caroline Wozniacki and Kristina Mladenovic). So fifteen of the top sixteen European women tennis players are either born in Eastern Europe or have Eastern European parents. Interestingly of the women mentioned above three – Wozniacki, Halep and Mladenovic – have fathers or brothers that are/were professional footballers.
Yet in contrast 20 out of the 46 countries that entered the Euro 2017 qualifing tournament were Eastern European. Of those 20 two were knocked out in the Preliminary Round, and of the other 18 all but Russia and Romania finished third or lower in their groups. Six Eastern European countries finished the qualifing groups without a point. It is quite amazing that 14 out of 26 Western European countries qualified for Euro 2017 and only one out of 20 Eastern European countries did. It shows that at the moment in women’s football Eastern Europe is a second division.
The only explanation – since it is clear from their success in women’s sport (tennis, track and field, gymnastics and weightlifting for example) that Eastern Europe has female athletic talent and encourages it – is that there is something about football that the establishment in the Eastern European countries does not like. Their past and current success in women’s sport shows that – unlike the UK and US in the past – Eastern Europe is not hostile to women’s sport but they are to women’s football. I have no idea why.
But there is encouragement for women’s football in Eastern Europe. The impressive performances of Portugal and especially Belgium and Austria in their first major Finals shows that if you invest in women’s football you will reap the divided. And we know from what I mentioned above that Eastern Europe has the female athletic talent.
If Eastern Europe ever gets its act together and takes women’s football seriously it could revolutionise two sports. Imagine if the next generation of Pliskovas, Haleps and Ostapenkos chose to be professional footballers not tennis players. That could be catastrophic for the WTA. As an article in the New York Times (March 6 2016) puts it “But it is just as crystal clear that the WTA is on borrowed time when it comes to global leadership. Women’s soccer, a still-drowsy giant, continues to stir”. If that giant ever wakes up in Eastern Europe which supplies most of the tennis talent in Europe tennis might lose its status as the dominant professional sport for women.
Right now the place to see Eastern European female athletic talent is on the tennis court. On the football field Eastern Europe is almost irrelevant. But that could change. If a future generation of Pliskovas, Haleps and Ostapenkos ever chose football and not tennis the WTA could be in deep trouble.
*I did not use Euro 2012 as a comparator since Poland and Ukraine qualified as co hosts thus inflating the number of Eastern European teams, or Euro 2016 as it had 24 teams.