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Bavarian Feminist Works: The culture of masculinity in soccer is changing

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Bayern Munich players such as Robert Lewandowski demonstrate that the masculine culture of soccer is changing — however, there is plenty of work to be done to incorporate more female voices in the sport.

FC Bayern München v Hertha BSC - Bundesliga
A deadly striker and...a dancer - Robert Lewandowski is the gift that keeps on giving
Photo by Sebastian Widmann/Getty Images

My father, before his glasses became a permanent fixture, was grading papers and watching a game. My six-year-old bored and restless self could not find anything to do to occupy my time; so, I ended up starting at the TV. Jamaica was playing the US in what I assume was a World Cup qualifier; my Dad had to introduce me to Jamaica as far as I can recall – but I never really found out what the purpose of that match was, instead choosing to bury it in a box of good memories in my brain.

Finding my place

A year later, after that game, I burst into tears as Oliver Kahn conceded the second of two goals against Brazil in the World Cup final. My family were engrossed in that World Cup and I was a bystander who was quite taken by Miroslav Klose; after all, I saw him score three goals against the mighty Saudi Arabia with his head, which I thought was the coolest skill in the world.

Four years later, I watched Miro Klose take home the Golden Boot; once again, it would end in tears against Italy. And then, a year later, after joining my Dad for various Arsenal games, and taking in Werder Bremen, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich games on the side, I saw Stuttgart crowned Bundesliga champions. As a newbie to domestic soccer, the Bundesliga intrigued me, especially the drama surrounding Klose’s possible move to what I was told was the behemoth of German soccer but the team I saw as inferior to a Bremen side which challenged for the title, Bayern Munich.

That season, I also watched the Champions League unfold. I had heard Real Madrid was a historic side and so, I took it upon me to watch their Round of 16 tie against Bayern. And that, ladies, and gentlemen, is the tie where I found Mark Van Bommel. I did not know about his reputation extensively then, but, when he scored a goal in the first leg, late in the tie, a goal that was the catalyst for a second leg comeback in which Roy Makaay scored the fastest goal in the history of the competition, I knew Miro Klose wasn’t the only one headed to Bayern Munich.

Mark Van Bommel and the culture of soccer

Van Bommel remains to this day one of my favorite players. Yet, he had a reputation which, perhaps rightfully, stuck to him. Cards and Van Bommel are synonymous; he received 48 yellow cards and 4 red cards in his time at Bayern. I firmly believe that had VAR been a part of the game at that point, Van Bommel’s card count would have been higher; the fact that he escaped a red card in the 2010 World Cup final is still a mystery to me. This gesture in a rather blurry video (it was 2008 after all) from a clash against Hamburg is one of Van Bommel’s four red cards in a Bayern Munich jersey:

The club fined Van Bommel for the gesture; however, they also defended their player and their future captain at the time, as this paragraph from Bayern’s official website displays:

Kahn feels Van Bommel is “a marked man. They seem to be thinking: Ah, foul, ah, Van Bommel, I’ll have to react twice as much to that,” the FCB captain mused. Van Bommel himself denied that was the case. Referees are only human, they’re influenced by the media,” he reflected, “but I can’t change the way I play.”

In fact, this was not the only incident in which Van Bommel had something to “gesture” about the game; in the Real tie which made me a fan of Van Bommel, he did the same. Jeroen Arendsen, on his site, appropriately titled “A Nice Gesture” noted at the time:

I am starting to notice a pattern to sportsmen making insulting gestures. Yesterday I watched Dutch football player Van Bommel make a “fuck you”-gesture (twice) with a hand in the crook of the elbow after scoring for Bayern Munich against Real Madrid. A day later he is under attack and vigorously apologizing to fans and the general public.

Robert Lewandowski and masculinity

Soccer players are often beloved by their clubs for such attitudes. Bayern also had another hot-head in the team at the time next to Van Bommel, Franck Ribery; in contrast to such players, Robert Lewandowski comes across as a consummate professional and a fantastic role model for today’s youth. His videos on the social media platform, TikTok gained popularity to the extent that he was questioned about his dance moves by UEFA at the Champions League draw ceremony this year. Lest you have forgotten, here is a compilation:

Gopika, another female writer on this site, made me aware that Lewa had received negative press for such videos. Asiaville News took a look at why:

But something about it [Lewandowski’s dance moves] and the videos that followed upset people. Some called it “cringe.” The others cried “death of an intimidating footballer.” The kind who instilled fear in the opponents with a gaze. Some wrote odes to the yesteryear football – no nonsense fighters of the Roy Keane and Patrick Viera mold. But at the core of their argument was – the death of masculinity.

Lewa never stopped dancing. I, for one, am glad that he never did. Dancing makes him human; dancing makes him accessible; dancing endears him to young fans such as my teenage sister who will never watch an entire game but knows about the team because of Lewa’s videos on TikTok and because of Benjamin Pavard’s regular social media updates (or so she tells me).

Dancing breaks the trap of masculinity; you do not have to hide your softer sides from the world to instill fear into the hearts of opposition defenders. After all, the TikTok videos did not prevent Lewa from breaking every record in sight en route to winning the Champions League; it did not stop him from scoring four goals against Hertha Berlin to pull a tired Bayern Munich team out of trouble recently.

Plenty of behaviors are excused in the name of masculinity in the world. For example, Jerome Boateng was charged with assault as Bavarian Legal Works noted. That article garnered far less angry commentary than David Alaba’s contract dispute. However, asking for more money is barely a crime, regardless of the pandemic, compared to assaulting a woman, especially an incident reportedly caught on camera.

For me, as a female born into the sport (my father played at an amateur level) who grew up with the sport and as I like to tell my sister “live and die with Bayern”, every time an incident such as this occurs and I have to look the other way, I feel as excluded as I did when I started writing about the sport online as a teenager and garnered plenty of abuse from fans. (I did end up working for a soccer website for my first job though — so, I have no complaints!). Regardless of the employment opportunity gained from writing about the sport, the abuse stuck; perhaps, due to my young age at the time, I was not ready to take on the world of internet fandom.

Nonetheless, out of principle, as a writer, I stuck to matters on the pitch and rarely spoke about matters off the pitch regarding players. I have long had a view about the game regarding players’ personal lives – I support Bayern Munich and as long as the players are giving their all on the pitch, their personal lives do not concern me. In fact, on a day-to-day basis, their personal lives are none of my concern at all. I know some details, such as about Thomas Müller and Lisa Müller’s relationship but that has more to do with how he went up to her in the stands after his Champions League debut against Sporting CP under Jürgen Klinsmann in 2009. As a result, when I find out about a personal aspect of a player’s life, the incident usually tends to be high profile and difficult to ignore.

The Frenchmen representing my club

Franck Ribery, a Frenchman who embodies Bayern Munich and remains a supporter to this day, even when he is plying his trade elsewhere nowadays, is beloved by all fans, including me. I took time out to watch Serie A recently; Fiorentina lost, 4-3, to Inter Milan, but Ribery was unstoppable. He was the heartbeat of the Fiorentina attack in that match. In case anyone has doubts about how Ribery feels about Bayern, here is a tweet:

Ribery, however, also had a highly publicized court case in France along with Karim Benzema for “sex with an underage prostitute” according to the BBC. His name was cleared in 2014 because both players were apparently unaware that the lady in question was a minor. When the reporting on the incident first began, I was a few years younger than the lady involved, Zahia Dehar.

I did not like Ribery for a lengthy period of time after that incident came to light but I kept my mouth shut. The court took a long time to acquit him of the crime as well. What struck me as odd was that the incident barely garnered any action from the fans themselves. Most of Bayern Munich is fan-owned; supporters have a voice at this club. The ultras never shy away from expressing themselves.

Once again, a player’s personal life is none of my business. Yet, what gives high profile stars the license to use women like this? I know of plenty of decent man who carry on with their lives without abusing a woman or using her for the purposes of entertainment.

Ribery eventually ended up in my good books when I chose to ignore his personal life and celebrate what he was doing in 2012-13, including setting up a winning goal for Arjen Robben in the Champions League final; seven years later, another Frenchman would become the hero for Bayern in a Champions League final, a Frenchman accused of assaulting his partner, Kingsley Coman.

I had all but forgotten about the incident until the Guardian brought it up in their podcast. Coman actually pleaded guilty according to ESPN and accepted the fine:

“Coman, 21, pleaded guilty to attacking model Sephora Goignan at her home in Magny-le-Hongre outside Paris in June. Goignan, the mother of Coman’s two daughters, was signed off work for eight days following the attack.”

For a moment, while listening to the podcast, I was under a dark cloud. I have the tendency to put myself in other women’s shoes. And again, I wondered, this is my club. These players represent my club. Why are these incidents not condemned more widely? It is perhaps down to a culture of masculinity in the sport, which condemns such matters far less than they condemn a disloyal player, such as one switching from Borussia Dortmund to Schalke, or once upon a time, from 1860 Munich to Bayern Munich.

This culture of masculinity leads to male fans attempting to kiss female reporters as happened in Russia 2018. This culture of masculinity leads to regular rape jokes in the sport.

I had a disagreement with a close friend of mine, a Manchester City supporter, when he brought them up after Bayern’s dismantling of Barcelona. There are many more jokes we can make about that game without bringing up mistreatment of women; the joke felt particularly unsavory as I know personally of women who have been victims of such incidents. Unfortunately, I am sure almost every female knows another who has been the victim of abuse or harassment at some point in her life.

For anyone out there making these jokes, know that they are hurtful to women. Women around the world fight very hard for this sport in many countries. Women have died for this sport; in Iran, for example, a particularly horrific incident led FIFA to make it mandatory for women to be allowed into stadiums after decades on the sidelines as per the Bangkok Post:

“The directive came after a fan dubbed “Blue Girl” died after setting herself on fire in fear of being jailed for dressing up as a boy in order to attend a match.”

In Afghanistan, Khalida Popal took it upon herself to form a woman’s national team; check out her profile if you can here.

Bibiana Steinhaus: A trailblazer

In fact, why look further than the Bundesliga and Bibiana Steinhaus, who made history by becoming the first German top-flight female referee, to find a trailblazer. Unfortunately, for every trailblazing woman, there is a man who made it his task to tell her she does not belong: introducing Kerem Demirbay. In 2015, as a Düsseldorf player, he told Steinhaus that “women have no place in men’s football” after she sent him off. Fortuna, to their credit, punished him by making him referee a female’s soccer match. He was banned for four games.

I wondered afterward if Demirbay would have done the same if he had a daughter (Coman has daughters as does Boateng), although I do not quite buy the argument that a man would not hurt a woman because he loves his mother, he loves his wife or he is a father to daughters. Speaking of fathers and daughters, I cannot help but bring up Liverpool forward Mo Salah’s daughter, who is seemingly quite the trailblazer:

No matter how many times I watch the video, I cannot stop smiling. I, for one, believe, soccer players’ sons always get more attention than their daughters. Of course, when sons make it at pro-level such as Casper Schmeichel, Justin Kluivert and Marcus Thuram, we should celebrate them.

Since, I am writing this, I would like to celebrate another daughter, this time, Lewandowski’s:

I did not start off liking Lewandowski at Bayern; his Real Madrid ambitions were apparent and I saw that as betrayal. However, this year, I have been thoroughly a fan. As much as I am glad to have watched guys like Van Bommel, I thank my lucky stars that the sport is filled with people like Lewa, Müller, Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka, incredibly good role models on and off the pitch.

Modern soccer culture

With all that being said, times are changing. Manchester United players, for example, learned that their female players are more popular than the male ones as Christen Press’ and Tobin Heath’s shirts outsold Paul Pogba’s jersey over three days:

“Long before that, their jersey sale numbers did the talking. The sales surpassed those of any of the men’s stars for the club over three days following their signing, per Mike Keegan at The Daily Mail. That includes stars like Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford.”

Bavarian Football Works has long been a trailblazer when it comes to promoting diversity among its ranks as well.

In 2013, I was welcomed onto this blog by the site manager at the time, Phillip Quinn. There were just four writers then and coverage was limited compared to now. Davis VanOpdorp, another writer at the time, and I, went to watch a Bayern Munich match together in New Jersey, an experience I will never forget. Judging by the success of BFW today and the diverse voices here, we can see that diversity only adds to the fan experience. It also shows that female fans are just as passionate about their teams as males, that female fans are a part of soccer culture, and that just as racism against players is condemned widely (at least nowadays), misogyny should be condemned too, not just for the sake of female fans, but also for the sake of upcoming female players.

There is still room for change in the sport; as an aside, ask yourself this: if you compare your reactions to when a male player takes his jersey off compared to when a female does to celebrate, do you see a difference? In society, when a male player does it, it is barely an issue, yet when a female player does it, the whole world starts discussing this: in fact, do not take my word for it, ask Simone Laudehr. She discussed the incident with Bayern’s official website:

She didn’t think, says Laudehr, you can hardly imagine the feelings of happiness: “The fans always think we have a great life, and yes, we do. But there is this pressure, from the outside, in yourself - and then everything unloads in a single moment.” If she had been able to grab the corner flag, she would have destroyed it, or whacked something else. But she pulled her jersey up to the sports bra - and suddenly the celebration was bigger than the goal, the footballer became an icon, unintentionally. “I could have taken the jersey right off, but that would have been irrelevant.

Final thoughts

The point of this article is not to shame anyone. It is a reminder that women are a huge part of this sport. We live and breathe this sport as any other male fan or player. It is a reminder that we should remember, before making crude misogynistic remarks, that women are a part of this sport. We should also remember that as long as we keep promoting the image of the sport using masculinity, we allow incidents such as the ones involving Boateng, Ribery and Coman to go under the radar. We excuse inexcusable behavior. No matter how much soccer stars try to distract from this reality, they are role models on and off the pitch. Simply decency should not be too much to ask for.

We must raise the bar so that trebles won by female soccer teams are celebrated as much as those won by males (Wolfsburg won it in 2012-13).

We must raise the bar so that females, who are more and more aware of social inequalities, feel that this sport is welcoming for them.

We must raise the bar so that females become fans.

We must raise the bar so that inexcusable behavior is no longer excused.

We must raise the bar so that this sport, which is the world’s darling, continues to be the social connector it has always been.