Women’s football: What does Switzerland need to move forward?

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Football is a fixture in our society – as long as men are playing. Women footballers have a different experience. And the higher up they play, the greater the difference. In our “Steilpass” podcast, the big names from the world of Swiss women’s football tell their side of the story. 

Still today, many people are of the opinion that football is a male sport. But in recent years, a lot has been done to change this: Women’s football is evolving, growing, becoming more visible and more professional. Even if it's too early to talk about gender equality in the world of football, progress can be seen. In our podcast “Steilpass,” Assistant Trainer with the FC Winterthur women's team Sara Akanji talks with past and present female footballers to find out what women’s football is like in Switzerland and what the hot topics are.

Switzerland’s pioneering women

Women have a long history of playing football. Already in 1923, a group of women football enthusiasts got a club together in Geneva. Then there was nothing for a long time until in 1963, when sisters Monika and Silvia Stahel founded FC Goitschel in Aargau. They held amateur tournaments where they could show off their skills, but women were not allowed to hold official matches. But, the Swiss Football Association did permit them to participate as referees, which enabled women to get their foot in the door of Swiss football. In 1965, Madeleine Boll from the canton of Valais accidentally received a football license. The “mistake” was quickly corrected, but Boll kept playing anyway. Several years later, she celebrated enormous success in Italy, where women’s football was already mainstream.

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After the Women’s Football Club Zurich was founded in 1968 and the Swiss Women’s Football League in 1970, the milestones gradually followed. Although women's football saw growing acceptance in Switzerland in the 70s and 80s, it still existed in the shadows. Female players were used to being laughed at or even insulted because football was not considered to be a feminine pursuit. Several more decades would pass before women’s football was taken seriously by society. At the start of the 21st century, girls who were crazy about football would play with their brothers, boys in the neighborhood and male school friends because they had no other alternatives. 

"It's definitely not easy to manage everything, but I get a lot of help from my employer."

Jessica Schärer, player for FC Rapperswil-Jona

Women can play football too!

One girl who grew up loving the sport is Lara Dickenmann, a former record-setting national league player and now General Manager for GC Women’s Football (in German). “Every generation fights their fight and makes a contribution,” she says about the long and hard path of Swiss female footballers. “We owe it to the courageous and determined women of the 60s to keep moving Swiss women's football forward. This is our chance to give something back to them.” 

“Finally, there are female role models in football. That’s what we were missing back then.”

Lara Dickenmann, former record-setting national league player

What is it like now in Swiss women’s football? “It's gradually improving,” notes Dickenmann. “We’re playing on a much larger stage now. Visibility is key! Social media has played a huge part in this. The public has come around to the idea that women can play football too. And finally there are well-known female players to inspire us. That’s what we were missing back then.”

Equality – the ongoing issue 

As the public presence of women’s football grows, so does its fan base. Gone are the days when the stadiums were practically empty, with just a few seats taken up by friends and family. But there’s still quite a ways for women's football to go. “At the same level where male players have been getting paid for quite some time, women still have to pay membership dues! A lot of people don’t know this,” states Toja Rauch from FC Winterthur (in German). “Starting in the second league, men are paid goal and appearance bonuses. We women are still a long way away from this.” 

“At the same level where male players have been getting paid for quite some time, women still have to pay membership dues!”

Toja Rauch, currently plays for FC Winterthur

And even though it's not just about the money, money is directly correlated with good football: Players that can make a living from football have the time and energy needed to devote to it. Players can train during the day instead of after work – which means they can have their evenings free. “Men have more time to recuperate and better medical support. Basically they have what they need to play football. We women have to do most of this during our free time,” explains Rauch. Most women players in Switzerland have to go to school, college and/or work, says Rauch, who goes to college full-time and has three side jobs. 

How do women manage to juggle all this? 

Successfully managing sports, education, work, family and friends is an enormous challenge for Swiss female footballers. Former national league player Cinzia Zehnder struggled to manage it all when she was starting out in her career. When she was just 17 years old, she was unexpectedly drafted to play for the World Cup in Canada, but it fell on the same date as her high school final exams. The school administrators were reluctant to help, but in the end it all worked out.

“There was only school, training, sleep, repeat.”

Cinzia Zehnder, former national league A player

Later as Zehnder pursued both her studies and football, her day was fully scheduled. “There was only school, training, sleep, repeat. And the weekends were just matches and studying,” remembers Zehnder. “When I look back on it now, I ask myself how I even did that.” But despite all this, she said it was still what she wanted at the time: “Football is not just a lot of work, it’s also a lot of fun. Training and playing in matches gave me back a lot of energy.” Still, Zehnder could not and did not want to keep playing. She enjoyed one final, intensive year of football with FC Bayern München. Then she left the top league to concentrate on studying for her medical degree, which she has since earned.

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In Switzerland, the traditional professional career is still just a dream. But there are countries where footballers can make a living from their sport. This is why several promising football players have signed contracts in England or Germany. In a second blog article, Martina Moser, Lia Wälti and Lara Dickenmann talk about their experiences abroad. 

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