The footballing world was in awe and dwelled in emotion as FCB Femeni won against Atleti Femenino in the Supercopa Femenina on January 23.
Virginia Torecillia’s return to the pitch for the final few minutes after undergoing surgery for a brain tumour was an emotional moment. As for awe, well, who isn’t in awe of this FCB Femeni team?
They scored 7 goals en route to a comfortable victory as Caroline Graham Hansen starred with a hat-trick and two assists. Here is what I thought was interesting though. Every goal with the exception of Lieke Martens’ last goal had the involvement of a Norwegian. Ingrid Engen had opened the scoring and Caro was involved in every other goal that followed.
Norway’s footballing ecosystem is really good for the women’s game to grow and they have a few years’ lead on other nations with the exception of some countries – but they trail none.
However, Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was this ecosystem for Women’s Football that Norway possesses. It is the result of the defiance and insistence of a few people – a struggle that lasted over a good half a century.
Phase I: 1920s – 1960s – ‘Show Matches’ and Entertainment
The time around the 1920s was the time when football was finding traction among the women’s community and it didn’t take long for the fearmongers to squash it down in the interest of the men’s game. Britain had put a direct ban on women playing football followed by Spain and Italy. This was the general situation across Europe.
In 1922 the NFA Executive Board member, Per Christian Andersen, described football as “a game for strong men and powerful boys.”
Any notion for women to be participating in football was termed as strange and monstrous. However, some games involving women did take place during this time frame in an unofficial way.
One of the earliest women’s game recorded in Norway was attended by then Crown Prince Olav V of Norway. It was between Sonia Henie’s team and a men’s team and was attended by over 4000 people.
Henie was a film star and an ice-skater who won multiple World Championship golds and a triple Olympic Gold medalist. Henie’s team was awarded the win because of their performance which saw the game end in a draw.
Sonja Henie. This Norwegian old Hollywood actress was a three time Olympic champion and a ten time World champion in women's figure skating. She sadly died after a long struggle with leukemia at age 57 during a plane flight from Paris to Oslo. 🌹 pic.twitter.com/AnfYg2TeiZ
— The Antiquarian (@EdMcClellan11) July 26, 2021
There are other records of games involving women taking place sporadically across the country but all of these had one common feature.
It was mostly women playing men in what was supposed to be just a source of providing entertainment to the onlookers. Women playing the game seriously was not at all welcome which is summed up by the following account.
The newly formed women’s Fløya club in Tromsø team decided to organise a match to raise funds for a banner in 1931.
Harald Rønne, an instrumental figure in football in the region, wrote to the NFA seeking permission as it was generally not seen as appropriate for women to take part in football or any other physically demanding activities.
The game went ahead without the permission of the NFA initially because the mailing system of the time didn’t allow for the response to be received in quick time.
The game brought in the funds for the banner and even though the game had a lot of controlled and uncontrolled movements, not all of which were gracious to watch, people turned up to witness the game and there were demands for a second game.
However, in due time before the second game, the response from NFA was received for the first request which slammed the door shut for women to partake in any football games. This is the quoted reply from NFA.
Ladies should not play football. That was not only because it was unsuitable for women, the ladies could also get injuries that destroyed their reproductive organs. Fløya should therefore not allow or let ladies enter the football field. Fløya has to follow that because football was for boys and men!
The Norwegian FA had banned any occurrence of the women’s game and their viewpoint is evident in their response to Ronne.
Football was apparently too physical while handball (which is the 2nd most famous game among women in Norway currently) and gymnastics were considered more suitable. The games were sporadic, unstructured and officially unapproved.
The situation remained like this for the better part of 2-3 decades before the next phase began.
Phase II: A struggle for inclusion (1970s-80s)
The suppression faced by women was not limited to football. It was extended to all walks of life and thankfully for Norwegian women – the nation was one of the first to recognize and respond to gender inequality.
Girls growing up in this timeframe had a different mindset. They had an attitude to resist suppression. Girls around this time wanted to “take part, move borders, and break barriers” and playing football was part of this mandate.
This idea still did not fit right with the NFA. NFA still refused to accept women’s football. The lack of playing grounds, dressing room facilities, organisers and referees were factors that prevented women’s football from being accepted and subsequently developed.
Indeed, some men’s football clubs openly discriminated against women’s clubs. One example was the Ullensaker/Kisa’s Ladies team who were not allowed to play at the men’s ground but rather had to rent a playing ground even though they were part of the men’s club.
One of the pioneers for women’s football was Målfrid Kuvås who is popularly regarded as the ‘Mother of Women’s Football in Norway’.
Kuvås started her football career in 1952 as a 10-year-old girl playing for Børsa Boy’s Team in Sør-Trøndelag in the middle of Norway but, like many of her colleagues, she stopped playing in her puberty as there were no girl’s teams, and playing in boy’s teams was too difficult.
She competed in athletics, handball and skating later but returned to improve football when signs of improvement appeared.
In July 1970, she arranged for a game between Amazons from Grimstad and BUL-Oslo. This match attracted much interest and was popularly considered the ‘first-ever’ women’s football match.
Although we know this wasn’t the first game – this has a wide significance in forwarding the women’s game. She served BUL-Oslo for 25 years going forward.
One other pioneer was Ellen Wille – who was the first women to speak in FIFA’s AGM – along with a newspaper called Dagbladet organized a competition called Norway Cup in 1971. Norway Cup is still an active competition and for age groups all the way from 6 year old to senior categories.
One of the most famous players to have played in the Norway Cup is none other than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The Norway Cup invited both girls’ and boys’ team across age groups but they weren’t to play each other like the show games.
In 1971, 16 teams entered the women’s competition and this number rose to 57 in 1977, 249 in 1982 and to 450 in 2004. The NFA could not close their eyes to the rise of women’s football for much longer.
Under heavy pressure, they had to establish a Women’s Committee in 1976. For the first two years, the chair of this committee was Nicolai Johansen. He was a very powerful man in the organization and had changed his opinion about women’s football from a negative to a positive attitude.
The fact that he became the first Chair was also a strong signal to the Norwegian male-dominated world of football that women’s football should be taken seriously.
91 girls and women’s teams in 17 regional FAs were registered in the first year of activity with the Women’s Committee. The committee not only encouraged players, but they also wanted women to take courses as leaders, referees and coaches.
Ellen Wille took over as chair after two years. The initial goals for the committee were to establish leagues for women and girls in all districts in Norway and establish the national team.
Along with the Norway Cup, several leagues for girls and women were formed throughout the 1970s. By 1985, all regions of Norway had a league competition.
For the national team, the committee looked for a coach and finally ended up appointing Per Pettersen. On the club team, Pettersen played as a striker, but eventually took on the midfielder role, where he appeared in the playmaker or libero role, with both defensive tasks when the team defended and offensive when the team attacked. On the national team, he often played as defender.
Pettersen was appointed the manager of the women’s national team from 1978 to 1982 and he wanted full acceptance for women’s football. This was met with some resistance but in 1982 the NFA did sign a sponsor deal for women’s football in the first step to the commercialisation of the game for women.
In 1984, it was agreed that girls and women should have the same opportunities as boys and men in Norway and follow the same ‘skills development model’, often in mixed sessions.
The successes of unofficial Women’s World Cups that took place in 1970 and the further development in all Nordic countries – Denmark, Norway, Sweden – caught the attention of UEFA soon enough. UEFA who passed a motion in favour of member countries taking control of women’s football, a motion that was formally adopted by UEFA in 1971.
UEFA established a Women’s Committee in 1971 that bizarrely was all-male, but the committee was wound up in 1978 having failed to organise any international competitions.
A new committee was set up in 1981 and this time it included two women members — Pat Gregory from England and Hannelore Ratzeburg from Germany.
UEFA organized the inaugural European Championships in 1984 where they went till the Finals. In 1987 they went on to host the tournament and win it. A landmark victory for all those who worked for realizing the Women’s National team in Norway.
This success also brought further participation. By 1988, 2500 girls’ and women’s team was registered with the Women’s Committee of the NFA. Norway had more female teams in 1988 than many countries in the present day.
The stages after 1988 saw a lot of landmark women and pioneers rising to big positions that further interest in Women’s Football. Ellen Wille was the first woman who spoke in FIFA AGM and her idea about an Official FIFA World Cup was realized in 1991.
By 1992, NFA disbanded the Women’s Committee and moved onto a much more active integration of women’s football as a part of their activities. The game didn’t need a separate committee to oversee the women’s game now.
Not only on the pitch – women were rising to administrative roles and as coaches and referees. Bente Skogvang, another pioneer, was appointed to officiate at the Sweden World Cup in 1995. It was a landmark for Norwegian female referees.
Norway failed to get to the final of the first Olympic Games which included women’s football – Atlanta in 1996 – the Norwegian Bente Skogvang, nevertheless, refereed the final between China and the USA.
Another pioneering name was Karen Espelund. She played over 300 games from 1976 to 85 while also representing the national team. Espelund was first elected to the executive board of NFA in 1988 and advanced to the post of first vice-president in 1996.
This was the first time that a woman had reached such a high position. At that time three of the eight members of the executive board were women. Three years later, in 1999, Karen Espelund became the first female secretary-general of the NFA – one of the most powerful positions of the NFA.
Espelund’s rise through positions of leadership saw her get a two-year mandate to serve as UEFA Women’s Football Committee Chairman in Michel Platini’s inner circle in 2011.
Since 1991, elite teams in Norway have received specially earmarked money in order to work towards a higher degree of professionalism in women’s football. Other initiatives have also been taken to recruit more girls and women into football.
One of the most recent is a project named ‘The Football Girls Project 2000/2001’. The aim of this project was ‘to recruit more girls (6–12 years of age) to the game.
It involved 75 clubs, and 5,000 T-shirts and 1,500 balls have been given to clubs which have started new teams for girls in 2000 and 2001. The result? A 30% increase in the number of players from 1999.
Norway won the 1995 World Cup in Sweden with a 23-1 aggregate where Hege Riise was named Player of the Tournament. She scored 5 goals and had 5 assists in the tournament while another Norwegian Ann Kristin Aarønes was the top scorer with 6 goals.
It must be pointed out that both Caroline Graham Hansen and Ada Hegerberg were born in 1995 when Norway had won the Women’s World Cup.
Last year, Hansen won the treble with the FCB Femeni team and also scored in the UWCL Final at Gothenburg. Ada was a part of the treble-winning Lyon team and won the inaugural Women’s Ballon d’Or.
The girls growing up in these Nordic countries are in luck. They get a really good platform to express themselves and then move on to well-known clubs like Wolfsburg, Lyon, and FCB Femeni.
Norway will be a strong contender in the Euros coming up later this year and the World Cup in 2023. A country in which show games were a thing once upon a time, football is the game played by women the most – ahead of both handball and gymnastics which was supposed to be their forte.
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Gualter Fatia – UEFA