Gender, football, and trans/national identities  

Gender, identity and sport

Numerous studies indicate the importance of sport, in particular men’s teams and male athletes, for national representation and identity formation. Mosse described how ‘male stereotypes’ were formed in the gym halls and on the playing grounds of the young nation states and how these stereotypes were intertwined with the creation of ‘national subjects’ and the formation of the nation as a ‘Männerbund’ based on ‘ideals of manliness’. Sport and nation as male domains seemed to complement and support each other. Little attention has been paid to the intersections of gender, sport and national or regional identities and to the question whether and how sportswomen and female teams may foster identification or reinforce national, let alone European, identities. Today, however, there is a consensus that gender and nation intersect and interact and that gender relations are key dimensions of nationalist projects.

No longer a men’s world
    The focus on gender and national or European identities raises the question about the meaning of both concepts.

From the perspective of cultural studies, identity is not a static and fixed entity, but continuously created and re-defined in and through interactions within multiple discourses. This is true for both gender identities and European identities.

Sport is a concept and a practice which systematically compares performances and identifies differences. Practising sport is always presenting oneself as man or as woman: it is always doing gender.

    Even though in most sports men and women do not compete with each other, gendered hierarchies emerge. There is ‘real’ football and women’s football, the latter being often portrayed as a less attractive copy of the men’s game. It is an open question whether the increasing interest of women to play and consume football will change this image and make women’s competitions into events which integrate local, European and global perspectives.

Football, the construction of (male) identity and the chance for transnational dialogue

In Europe, football emerged as a male domain due to the political and socio-economic conditions of the 19th century. It has always been a combat sport, where fighting for the ball as well as powerful and aggressive actions are highly appreciated. The game seems to demand attributes and abilities which were traditionally considered to be ‘male only’. Fandom, too, is traditionally a process of gendered socialisation which begins with the initiation of children (as a rule: boys), into the brotherhood of predominantly male fans. In other words: football has always been a demonstration and celebration of hegemonic masculinity, on and off the pitch. As a result, fan communities are always explored as communities of men’s football. If and how male or female fans react to and identify with female players has not (yet) been an issue of football research. As a matter of fact, despite the male dominance in all areas of football from the club presidents to the audiences, most football studies are ‘gender blind’.

Women and football

In some European countries such as England, where women founded football clubs already at the beginning of the 20th century, they had to face the resistance of men, in particular of the football federations. In Germany and other European countries, the Football Federations disregarded women’s football. They forwarded numerous arguments referring to a dichotomic gender order based on biologist discourses. Female bodies and minds as well as women’s ‘destiny’ seemed to prevent them from participation in an exhausting and rough game which was reserved for men displaying their physical and mental superiority.

The ban on women’s football was lifted in 1970 and this was the beginning of a continuously increasing women’s football movement. In 1984, women competed for the first time at the European level. In 1991, the first world championship for women’s teams was organised, and in 1996 women’s football became an Olympic event. In 2000-1 a UEFA Women’s Cup was introduced. It responded to the growing interest in and importance of women’s football in Europe, and since 2009-10 this event has been re-branded as the UEFA Women’s Champions League. Today, an ever increasing number of girls and women play football, and in many countries, such as Norway or the UK, football is among the most popular women’s sports. In Germany, more than one million girls and women (which compares to 5.5 million boys and men) are members of the German Football Federation, DFB.

Currently, women’s football is increasingly appreciated and supported by national Football Associations and also by UEFA. Whether the underlying motive for this interest in girls and women may be self-serving, in order to recruit new members and fans, does not really matter. The fact is that despite an overwhelming male dominance in the decision-making committees, football federations support the rise of a European women’s football movement that not only includes players and fans, but also journalists, administrators and researchers, whose projects and publications contribute to a European dialogue on women and football.

Female fans in a men’s world: unexplored questions and perspectives

For the time being, however, women are still the ‘second sex’ in football, with regard to spectators, public attention, media coverage, sponsorships and financial resources. The question whether women’s clubs and female players have the potential to attract fans outside of their countries, to become an issue of European football discourses and to provoke transnational identification processes, deserves to be explored further.

Questions abound: How do female fans deal with the male fan culture? Do women play specific roles and act differently in fan groups from men? How do they react to the sexism and homophobia in football stadiums? Are there female ‘travelling’ fans identifying and/or exchanging with female teams and players in other countries? Is football a topic of cross-cultural dialogue and encounter among women?

The available studies generally focus on female fans of men’s clubs or male players; little is known about women supporting female players and teams. Moreover, publications mainly focus on the worldwide historical development of women’s football, or on different national case studies, and very little has been written on women’s football from a distinctly European perspective. This is surprising, since football, as a producer of a particularly dense and prolific discourse, offers two distinct and promising perspectives for very significant observations with regard to issues of diversity and commonality across Europe.

The increasing presence of women among football crowds and the consumption of football as mass entertainment and a celebration of masculinity inflect traditional discourses of identity construction and negotiation. This raises unexplored questions about male vs. female patterns of identification and emotional investment, but also on the impact of women playing football on the existing gender systems. A comparative analysis should allow drawing conclusions about tendencies of divergence or convergence on a European level.


The Feminisation strand of the FREE project focuses on the triple issue of women’s football, female fandom and gender identities in European football. In addition to its contribution to other research strands and the participation in the joint empiric surveys, the research strand on feminisation will extend its methodological range to the analysis of selected gender-specific associations, online networks and blogs.

Summary of research objectives

  • to develop new knowledge and understanding about the contribution of football to gendered identity construction and negotiation – in both the performance and the consumption of football – within a European context, to the gender-specific experience and acting out of fandom, to and the intersection between gender and national/European identity;
  • to study the role of gender in football and fan cultures with regard to gender-specific patterns of cross-cultural communication and identification;
  • to investigate how the recent increase in women’s presence in football across Europe has caused new discourses to emerge, to assess the place of women’s football in European football discourses, and to explore to what extent the ‘feminisation’ of European football has modified audience perception and interpretation of the game;
  • to assess the potential of women’s football to attract female and male fans and elicit cross-cultural identification, by studying the role of football in women’s transnational dialogues;
  • to assess the impact of migrating male and female players on identification offers;
  • to identify similarities and differences between men’s and women’s patterns of identification and emotional investment in football in different European countries.