Women's Euro 2022: Why is Eastern Europe trailing behind in women’s football?

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Women's Euro 2022: Why is Eastern Europe trailing behind in women’s football?
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With eight teams soon about to advance to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Women's Euro 2022, a quadrennial football tournament, conspicuously absent from the entire competition have been countries from Central and Eastern Europe.

Of the 16 nations competing in the tournament, Finland is the easternmost country in the tournament.

That's a stark contrast to the men’s game. More than a third of the 23 national teams that qualified for the men’s UEFA Euro 2020 were from Central and Eastern Europe.

Croatia, the Czech Republic and Ukraine made it to the “round of 16”. Croatia also got to the final of the last men’s World Cup; Croatia, Poland and Serbia will be amongst the 13 European teams competing at the next World Cup in Qatar in November.

The Czech Republic, at 25th, has the highest-ranked women’s national team in Central and Eastern Europe, according to the women’s world rankings by FIFA, the sport’s global governing body. Next is Poland, at 33rd.

No domestic team from the region has ever advanced deep into the UEFA Women’s Champions League, an annual pan-European tournament.

Why is the old 'eastern bloc' lagging behind?

Benedikter Roland, of the Eurac Research centre and co-editor of Football Politics in Central Europe and Eastern Europe, says it’s because of a combination of factors.

First is history.

Despite socialist pretences of gender equality, women’s football was not prioritised by their former socialist governments. After communism fell across most of the region in 1989, economic difficulties meant there was little money for the women’s game; the men’s game also suffered across the region.

Whereas Romania’s Steaua București and Yugoslavia's Red Star Belgrade won what is now called the men’s Champions League in 1986 and 1991, respectively, no team from Central or Eastern Europe has made it to a final since.

“After the EU accession of Central and Eastern European countries in 2004, the culture of neglect that had established itself could hardly be changed,” Roland explained.

Women's sports suffered from “chronic underfunding [and] a lack of professionalisation,” as well as little attention in the public sphere.

This was compounded by a conservative turn in politics during the 2000s, analysts told Euronews.

In Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, “regressive gender stereotypes returned, making it more difficult for women's sports in general,” said Roland.

Since 2010, Viktor Orban, the populist Hungarian prime minister, has overseen almost US$2.7 billion spent on the game by the state and his business associates, according to investigative reports published last year. Yet, Hungary’s national women’s team fell from 31st place in 2010 to 43rd last year, according to FIFA rankings.

Domestic leagues also matter. UEFA, the European governing body, ascribes a coefficient to women’s national leagues based on the results of their clubs competing in the five previous seasons of the UEFA Women's Champions League.

As of the 2021/22 season, the Czech Republic’s national league is ranked sixth, ahead of the Italian and Danish. The Belarusian and Ukrainian leagues come 14th and 15th, respectively. Lithuania’s league is the only other league from Central and Eastern Europe in the top 20.

Mindaugas Kulbis/AP Photo
Switzerland's Rachel Rinast, right, and Lithuania's Loreta Rogaciova during the Women's World Cup 2023 qualifying football match in Vilnius. November 2021. - Mindaugas Kulbis/AP Photo

The countries that have the women's clubs with the highest cumulative UEFA coefficient points are France, Germany, Spain, and England, based on the 2021/22 ranks, noted Christina Philippou, principal lecturer in Accounting and Financial Management at the University of Portsmouth.

This is similar, except for Italy, to the European leagues with the richest men's teams. Women’s club teams are almost always formed as an affiliation to an existing men’s club.

“The richest clubs, for both men's and women's, tend to do better: they can buy better players; have better facilities; have more non-playing staff from team doctors to psychologists,” Philippou said.

“And the best of these players then play for their national teams, so financial success at club level helps national teams, too, to an extent.”

Visibility is key

Dunja Antunovic, assistant professor in Sport Sociology at the University of Minnesota, points to another problem: visibility.

“Women’s sports are generally underrepresented in routine media coverage, but tend to receive more attention when athletes compete for national teams,” she said.

However, since few national teams from Central and Eastern Europe compete in major women’s football tournaments, media organisations are not incentivised to cover the events.

“Setting The Pace”, a landmark FIFA report published last year, found that national television in Hungary broadcasts only around 20 per cent of all domestic women’s matches, compared to more than 30 per cent for England and Italy, and close to 100 per cent in France.

FIFA notably couldn’t collect enough data from other countries in Central and Eastern Europe to include them in detail in its reports.

From previous research as well as her own viewing of the ongoing Euro 2022 tournament, Antunovic says that coverage of women's football in the region “has been inconsistent at best, and audiences must work hard to find even score updates”.

She added that “media awareness of women’s football is one factor that can increase the prominence of the sport in the region.”

Coverage of women's football in the region 'has been inconsistent at best, and audiences must work hard to find even score updates'.

It’s also about the story each nation tells itself. It isn’t the case that women’s football developed quicker in Western Europe, says Jean Williams, a professor in sports history and author of The History of Women's Football.

Czechoslovakia, for instance, had a “very good team in the late 1960s,” she noted.

Whereas the unofficial Women's Football Association wasn’t created in England until 1969, Czechoslovakia’s women's national team was formed a year earlier. It was set to appear in the first unofficial women’s World Cup in 1970 but had to withdraw over visa issues in travelling to the host country Italy.

Yet Czechoslovakia did take part in the 1988 FIFA Women's Invitation Tournament in China, a precursor to the first official women's World Cup, also held in China, three years later.

Sparta Prague and Slavia Prague, the country’s two historic domestic sides, also formed their own women’s clubs in the late 1960s, decades before most English or French clubs were created. The top-tier domestic women’s league has been ongoing in Hungary since 1984, much longer than in Italy, Germany or England.

“It really depends whether the national governing body values women’s football or not as an economic asset,” says Williams. "Most Central and Eastern European national governing bodies do not.”

Poland is one of the four countries or groupings bidding to host the UEFA Euro 2025 with Ukraine’s bid on hold due to the war.

They are making a mistake, though, by “perceiving this to be the start of their women’s football journey and neglecting the much longer history in each nation,” Williams added.

There are signs of improvement.

Recent years have seen more girls picking up the sport and national football associations are attempting changes. The Polish Football Association, for instance, has increased funding for women's football by around 30 per cent in recent years, says Roland. The Croatian Football Federation announced last September an investment of €460,000 into the game.

Philippou, of the University of Portsmouth, noted that attendances at women’s matches are growing across Europe, while there are also major increases in sponsorship and broadcast investment.

“It's commercialising very rapidly,” she said.

Given the popularity of football in Central and Eastern Europe, “there is scope for the women's game to grow there, too.”

Though, she added, “this can be a slow process in areas where money is scarce and interest is not encouraged.”

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