As memories of South African vuvuzelas and a semi-final defeat to Spain fade, Germany is now gearing up for the next worldwide soccer tournament in just 100 days — the FIFA women’s World Cup that kicks off in Berlin in June.
Germany are the defending champions, after winning the last two women’s World Cups, and 60,000 tickets have been sold for Germany v Canada, the opening match at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium on June 26, setting a new record in advance sales for a women’s soccer match in Europe.
Total ticket sales already stand at 550,000 for the 22-day tournament, impressive, if still below the 3.4 million sold when Germany hosted the men’s game in 2006.
The tournament will be beamed into living rooms across Germany and to another 200 countries worldwide — a level of media coverage that is unprecedented for a women’s soccer event, according to FIFA.
All this attention has helped make national stars out of the Germany players.
Fatmire “Lira” Bajramaj is one of the best known. The 22-year-old Muslim was born in Kosovo, but at the age of four she and her family fled the conflict there for Germany, where she started secretly playing soccer against her father’s wishes. Now playing for Turbine Potsdam, the No. 1 team in the women’s Bundesliga, Bajramaj has already written a book about her experience titled My Goal in Life — from Refugee to World Champion.
Together with national men’s team midfielder Mesut Ozil, who is German-born of Turkish descent, she is held up as an example of racial integration in sport.
In an interview with CNN a few weeks ago, she said of her childhood: “We did experience quite a lot of racism. I didn’t know who these skinheads were with their bomber jackets and their boots. They’d say things to us like: ‘Go back to where you came from, you don’t belong here.’”
Now she says she has won respect for her soccer skills.
“I grew up here, this is where my family are, so it’s a bit like a dream, first that the World Cup is here and second that I can be a part of it,” she said.
Heike Ullrich, head of women and girls’ soccer at the German Football Association, calls her a “very good role model.”
Hungarian-born Dsjenifer Marozsan and Celia Okoyino da Mbabi, a German-born player of French-Cameroonian descent are also part of the national team’s multicultural face.
“Our players with foreign roots are sometimes more interesting for sponsors and spectators than let’s say the ‘boring Germans,’ and so far, knock on wood, we have not had any problems with racism among spectators,” Ullrich said.
So will the German public get behind this summer’s event?
More than a million girls and women are currently members of soccer clubs in Germany, making it one of the sport’s fastest growing areas. Yet it was only in 1970 that the German FA decided to support women’s soccer. Two decades later, the women’s Bundesliga was founded and in 1993 its match lengths were increased by 10 minutes to equal the men’s game.
Meanwhile, at grassroots level, a German FA campaign to promote soccer to girls aged seven to 10 years, and to forge partnerships between schools and local clubs, now has 17,000 participating schools.
Last month, Mattel unveiled Barbie dolls modeled on women’s team coach Silvia Neid and striker Birgit Prinz, an honor that has only been bestowed on one other German — Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Mattel described the two players as perfect ambassadors for their sport and role models.
There is still a long way to go to reach the sort of fame and media attention of the men’s team.
Ryland James, a soccer reporter covering Germany, said: “I think most Germans would struggle to name the players in their team at the moment and the amount of coverage they get on TV is very sporadic. There is still the old stigma that the girls can’t hit the ball hard enough, but there’s a lot more control and more thought in the game, so it will be interesting to see how that translates.”
The successful men’s World Cup hosted in Germany in the long, hot summer of 2006 is now referred to fondly as the “summer fairytale.”
Does the upcoming women’s competition have any hope of following suit?
“Selling out the Olympic Stadium for the first game is an amazing achievement,” James said. “This could be the tournament that really pushes women’s football forward.”
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