Universiteit Leiden

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Professional female footballers have to play like a man

Women’s football is steadily gaining attention. It’s as though the sport is becoming emancipated. And yet in conversations with professional female footballers philosopher Nathanja van den Heuvel discovered that a male culture still prevails. Female footballers often feel like second-class athletes, but they are prepared to make great sacrifices for their sporting career. Van den Heuvel found out why. PhD defence on 9 December.

Women can now be professional footballers, earn a salary and have their matches broadcast on TV. But it is still hard to break through the dominant male culture. Van den Heuvel discovered this when, for her research, she interviewed current and former professional female football players and coaches from professional clubs and the national team in the Netherlands. ‘Everything to do with masculinity is exalted,’ says Van den Heuvel. ‘Women have to play like a man; otherwise they risk not being selected. They have to be tough and kick hard. The football world is really negative about any characteristics that are traditionally seen as female, like caring.’


If you look at the female players’ experiences, huge gains stand to be made when it comes to emancipation, says Van den Heuvel. Players feel excluded because they don’t have the same facilities as men. They have to share changing rooms and sometimes men can just walk in. ‘The female football players often feel like second-class athletes.’

‘Football isn’t important but at the same time it’s the most important thing in the whole world.’


Despite all this professional female football players are still willing to make sacrifices in their health, social life and financial security. Now the prevailing idea is that they do so because this is part of football culture. But Van den Heuvel’s research shows that there is another reason for this. She heard various players say: ‘Football isn’t important but at the same time it’s the most important thing in the whole world.’

World of play

To explain this, Van den Heuvel turned to the game theory of Johan Huizinga, a professor at Leiden University in the first half of the 20th century. ‘It boils down to the fact that a game is another reality. If you play a game you are free. The players don’t sacrifice their health for economic value but for the world of play. That means a player has a dual consciousness. She can choose to play in the world of play, football.’

This dual consciousness is not just linked to sport. You can assign value to something that may seem worthless or useless at a first glance, the philosopher explains. This means that the choices we make are sometimes less rational than we often assume.

Male strongholds

Women are still not valued in other traditionally male strongholds either, says Van den Heuvel. It can be difficult for a woman to fit into such places. ‘With inclusion, we shouldn’t just talk about breaking the glass ceiling. We also need a change of culture. People are allowed to be diverse. See it as a strength that there are different leadership styles, for instance. I think that’s the broader conclusion that you can draw from my research.’


For football this means that if clubs want to change their culture, they must take it seriously that female players are willing to make sacrifices for their game. Van den Heuvel: ‘Sport organisations have a moral duty to ensure the players can do so in a way that is socially and physically safe. It’s a delicate balance because these sacrifices are part of professional football. The clubs have to take a critical look at themselves and that could entail less of a focus on performance.’

Text: Dagmar Aarts
Photo: KNVB

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