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Sweden's women footballers level the playing field

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13:09 CEST+02:00
Women's football is a big deal in Sweden, attracting stars from around the world to play in the national league. Ben Kersley asks why the sport is so popular.

Following Friday morning's defeat in Chengdu at the hands of a far superior USA, Sweden's chances of progressing to the next stage of the World Cup are looking slim. However, Sweden remain one of the strongest sides in this year's championship and still have the reputation of Swedish women's football to defend.

In the shadow of the Cloetta Center Hockey Stadium, the non-international players in Linköpings Football Club (LFC) are training hard for their next match. The women jump, weave and dribble following coach Daniel Pettersson's instructions in the crisp autumn air.

The dedication of the players is typical of not only the professionalism in the women's game in Sweden, but also the passion with which Swedish girls and women have adopted and laid equal claim to the beautiful game.

This commitment is made all the more remarkable by the fact that most of the team also have day jobs or are studying full time. Training takes place three evenings per week, after work. In fact, the only players to make a living from football are those who are currently in China. LFC has sent more players to China than most teams in the Swedish women's league (Damsallsvenskan), with six players in the Swedish national side and two playing for Nigeria.

LFC was only founded in 2003 and its story is typical of the way that women's football has progressed in Sweden over recent years. Following large investment from the local hockey club, LFC have been transformed from an amateur side playing on uneven fields to pro team who play in a floodlit stadium with a dedicated following. In the last four years they have climbed up the league and winning last season's Svenska Cupen.

But why has women's football taken off in Sweden in ways that it hasn't in other football obsessed countries such as Italy or Spain? According to LFC's club director, Anders Mäki, it is not surprising that Sweden has led the way with women's football:

“Sweden has always sought equality in society – in the workplace, in pay, at home and now in sport”

Female players in Sweden are starting to be seen as players in their own right and are respected for their ability on the field rather than a novelty as a girl playing a man's sport. According to Mäki, an interview with a player used to be more about to where they liked to shop or get their hair done, but now the focus is on their performance on the field.

Women are beginning to break through to all levels of the game, but while LFC's directors and trainers are currently all male, Mäki sees it as only a matter of time before women fill these roles too

“The women's game is only 30 years old in Sweden and it takes time to build up the competence from player to director”. He believes it will be the current generation of players who will make an impact in the boardroom. In coaching, though, women are already emerging at the top levels of the game, with Swede Marika Domanski Lyfors head coach for the Chinese national women's team.

The public profile of women players is also rising. In the world of punditry, SVT used ex-player Anna Pohjanen to comment on the Men's World Cup in Germany. Her knowledge and opinion was widely respected and viewers were left in no doubt that she was there for her insight into the game.

It's at the grass roots level where Swedish women's football has its strength. Boys still outnumber girls as members of local teams, but not by much. Girls are joining their local teams and coming up through the ranks. Several of Linköping's team have come from smaller clubs in the area and LFC still keeps a good relationship with amateur side Kenty, which in some respects can be seen as LFC's feeder team.

Forward Maria Aronsson, who recently scored 9 goals in a cup match comes from just outside Linköping. As a kid, Maria was more interested in playing football than riding horses and this wasn't seen as being anything out of the ordinary.

Her heroes are Liverpool (the other LFC) and Frenchman Thierry Henry, but there are more and more female idols emerging in the women's game. Victoria Svensson and Caroline Seger top the list of Swedish stars, but the real star is Marta, a Brazilian who plays for Umeå and the only player able to fill a stadium on her name alone.

Maria Aronsson is watching this world cup on television, but on current form, she will almost certainly feature in future major internationals. As the quality and profile of the ladies game increases and as more and more young girls are taking an interest in the sport, Sweden will continue to be a major team in international women's football.

Ben Kersley

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