GirlPower, a Moscow-based school of women’s football, was founded 4 years ago and over 200 girls of all ages attend it at the moment. This sport isn’t very popular among women in Russia yet, largely due to gender prejudice and the society’s conservatism. However, GirlPower is breaking down these barriers, proving that the football field is open for everyone. Alla Filina, the leading coach and co-founder of the school, talks about the main difficulties and prospects of women’s football in Russia.
Interviewed by Ekaterina Fomina
-How did you open your football school GirlPower?
-Four years ago our school was literally created overnight. Before that we used to train only children, but at a certain point we realized - why not give their moms an opportunity to play some football too. And then we opened a women’s section. It didn’t have a name or anything, we just said: “Come, girls”. About 12 people came to the first training and we understood that the interest was mutual and it was time we made a full-on school. Football can be mass, amateur and professional. Mass football is about people simply kicking the ball during festivals, holidays, in school clubs, etc. Amateur football is played in sports schools, clubs and club teams. Professional football is what a person can actually receive money for. We work with amateur and mass football.
- What was your own personal way to football?
- From one point of view, I have no direct relation to football, from another, my relation to it is most direct. I’ve never played professionally. When I was a kid, I really wanted to, but there was no women’s football in Russia back then, and girls had nowhere to go. For many years we kicked the ball in the streets, that was the only choice. I went in for other sports closely related to football and I could have easily switched if only I had had an option. Football remained just a dream for me.
Six years ago I brought a kid who was close to me to a football club training for the first time. I could see how brilliant he was at it, how his eyes were shining with passion.
It was then that I remembered my own sport fate. I had played both basketball and tennis simultaneously for 8 years. My life then consisted of 8 trainings a week in two sports schools. I had to quit when I was 14, as the circumstances in my life were far from easy.
When I saw his passionate eyes, I wanted them to still be that shiny when he turned 15. I wanted to do everything I could to help him: put in order his meals, maybe, give him some extra practice instructing him myself. After the training I came up to the coach with questions, but the answer was, “Lady, your place is in the kitchen, don’t distract me. You don’t understand anything anyway. Your task is to bring the child here and to take him back”. That was a turning point for me. I decided that it was no longer my concern and went to get my own coach license. It was perfect timing. I was going through a personal crisis: having been dedicating a lot of time to my business, I had grown to desire giving something away and being useful for others.
-What were your first steps?
- I found out that there is a Coach Mastery Academy in Moscow providing specialized education. The first stage is training for the position of a children's football and amateur teams’ coach. It takes 3 weeks, 8 hours a day. It's like professional qualification upgrading courses, but everything starts from the very beginning. I was the only girl on the course. The guys kept laughing at me and saying that I was wasting my time. The teachers had an ironic approach as well, as if the whole thing was not for a woman. No one ever even asked me why I had come there and what my motivation was. I hadn't ever trained or played myself before, I had no team. I received excellent marks in the exams, unlike some of those who made fun of me.
The next stage is training to be a coach of a professional team. The studies are more serious and last for a year and a half. My application caused even more laughter. I got literally flunked at the entrance exams, they just didn't let me in! They said, “Look, you'll never get a job anyway, football world is all about acquaintances, everyone knows everyone, everybody is assigned a place, you have no experience. And you're a woman, women's teams are of no interest to anyone. Let's not waste your time and ours. You can return when we start a women's group”. But I didn't give up. I tried once again the following year, I was very angry and motivated.
To spice it up a bit more, I came during the last month of my pregnancy. They didn't expect it. The belly showed the extent of my persistence. If I was there, I really needed it. Only 25 people out of 60 were accepted, and I was one of them. Naturally, my last name was announced the last.
-When did they start taking you seriously?
- We had the best teachers in the Academy. For instance, the technical director of the Russian Football Union, who has everything to do with the team’s victories at the World Cup 2018, heading the technical headquarters and giving hints to the head coach in real-time mode as to what should be done on the pitch. He’s a brilliant manager, all the coach licenses issued in Russia must have his personal approval. He too treated my intentions with irony. The football world is very conservative, and one can’t help being conservative having lived in it for several decades. I didn’t have great hopes. I understood what kind of culture he was transmitting. You don’t expect your grandma to be ecstatic if you come over wearing torn jeans. They did their job, they were good at it, and that was all I needed. When the girls from our school started entering the Academy to obtain their coach licenses, they realized that “fighting” us was useless. All the 5 girls, who are now coaches, graduated with honors. I think, time passed and people at the Academy started to understand that we were not those just aspiring a certificate to make a living and that it was not the only thing we could do. Our coaches were very motivated, they were no random people.
-Was it hard to break the conservative stereotype that football is a man’s game?
- It simply made me angry in a good way. There are these stereotypes that a girl is weak and she won’t make it. But if a girl really wants something, be it coaching or refereeing, if she is gifted, she can walk even through closed doors. We have to put up with the fact that this is a man’s world and have no illusions. A broken shoe heel, PMS or something else? You’d better realize that they won’t understand and make it easy for you. But apart from all these difficulties there are certain advantages as well.
Whatever their attitude is, you draw attention just because you’re a girl, you’re always in the spotlight. Yes, you’re always treated with skepticism. But if you believe in what you’re doing, it’s impossible to ignore you. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, they don’t want to let you in. It’s OK, we’ll be fine.
I can’t say that I’m fighting for gender equality. Each gender has its strengths. There are things men are better at, and vice versa. Historically, women are about tact, care and empathy. If you, as a woman, have these qualities, you can use them in your work. A woman is capable of building a different kind of relationship within a team. Any team is a complex structure, there are a lot of subtleties.
Women and men possess different types of energy, which helps them show this energy with various degrees of complexity in certain situations. You should just think, “Well, I’m a woman, so where am I likely to have more trouble than a man? What should I do to make it easier not only for myself but for my team?”
I’m still training teenagers, and it is hard to educate them. With them I establish a sort of relationship which is full of masculine energy. Not because I am becoming a man, but because I understand what they need from their mentor and what I can do on my part.
That would be a rough example, but nevertheless. If women were fighting, the war would be different. If men had something to do with maternity, life would be different.
Historically, football is a man’s world. But it doesn’t mean that there’s no place for a woman there. Everyone praises players and their coaches. But they forget that behind their backs there have always been women, who brought them to sports clubs, sent to training camps, tirelessly did everything their children needed every day, and they were not seeking fame or recognition – they were simply doing it for their kids.
If you dig a bit into the history of England, you’ll discover a very interesting fact. After the war, men came back home and saw that women’s football had become wildly popular. They didn’t find another way to gain back the popularity of “traditional football” except ban women’s football.
-Why do women come to football? To your school in particular.
- In most cases their story is quite like my own: just because it has always been their dream. Before, they didn’t have a place to practice or anyone to play with, but now they finally do.
I’ll give you an example of how it works.
In the childhood it seemed so cool to drive a race car. Imagine: you already have your driver’s license, but the time isn’t the same. You try to make do with your possibilities, bury your race car dream, content yourself with a passenger car and urban driving. Then you come to us and I say, “Ok, we’re participating in Formula 1 in 3 months and you’re in.” Do you get it? Wow! That’s what we do: we make girls’ dreams achievable. We’re dreamers ourselves. I want more girls to play. I’m one of those who didn’t have this opportunity.
- Do you have any restrictions: age, physical characteristics?
- 18 years of age is the only condition. We take in girls older than 18 because they can assume responsibility for their decisions. Our trainings are safe, but we’re all adults and we have to assess the risks. If she can’t play today, she just won’t come. Football isn’t really a dangerous sport. We just want the girls to be aware of their actions and understand that it’s only up to them.
Our eldest girl is 54. She started playing with us 2 years ago. It’s also about a dream. She dreamt of it as a child, and now that she’s 50, she can finally get down to it.
-What are these girls outside the pitch?
- They are lawyers, journalists, housewives, poets, regular managers, accountants, students – it varies so much that it’s hard to draw an average portrait.
- Is it feasible for a girl who has started playing as an amateur to get into professional sport?
-Girls have every chance to do that. There is wild competition in men’s football. Every year 40 thousand boys graduate from sports schools. And there are so much fewer girls, I don’t even have the figures. The number is so small that you can’t even remember it. Of course, if you come and start at 30, the odds of entering the professional sport are about zero. At 40 people already finish their career.
But if you’re 16 and you’ve finished a sports school, everything is possible. Even if not at the first attempt. Let’s say you haven’t been accepted to a club. But you don’t give up football, you just go and play with men. They’re quicker, stronger, so you’re growing faster. You spend 2 years kicking the ball with men 5 days a week. Is it probable that by 18 or 20 a women’s football club may take an interest in you? It sure is! Football is about a huge amount of factors.
In men’s football, everything is different: if you haven’t been picked after a sports school, you hardly stand any chances of further growth in professional sports, since the competition is crazy. At the age of 16 you are in a serious teenager crisis. When they tell you, “You are not good enough”, it’s very difficult to find inner motivation to really keep fighting. That is, keep doing what you have been doing: training five times a week, playing once a week, working out. You are as good as written off. It’s very oppressive. Would there appear a coach by your side who would give you a chance? Very unlikely.
- If a girl comes to football later, what is her aim? Self-fulfillment?
-It is a complicated question. It is about your own achievements. Football is where I can become better, see my improvement. It’s the same with marathons: it’s nonsense when they say it doesn’t work if you give the medals around. We believe it should be exactly about encouraging everyone. Football is not only healthy. When you see your improvement, it helps you to feel more confident, to build a career, to grow. It also helps you to rise socially if you think big. You build yourself up through your own achievements. You feel freer, more confident, you get a sense of belonging. A good hobby always brings improvements. Making bracelets, drawing tattoos, playing football – if it inspires, you’ll have energy to live. Life becomes more colorful. You start enjoying yourself and it’s a way to grow, of course.
The girls don’t come for achievements or medals. They come for their dreams. And it’s not cups that people dream of, it’s playing. It’s just a game. Like kids playing bricks: they do it for nothing but the process itself. The girls too come here for the sake of the process.
- But there are some competitions in amateur sports as well. Does your school participate in any games?
- We don’t make our girls play – only if they want it themselves. We play in the Amateur football league. Our success differs from one season to another: we happened to be in the top three; we also happened to be at the very bottom.
Football is always about fate, and the playing of our national team has showed it well. As the RFU members like to say, even a broken clock is right twice a day. Football is made by a vast number of circumstances. During an amateur game, twenty people may come to the pitch and each of them is “a dark horse”. Only God knows what the result may be.
- Twenty people from one team?
- Substitutions are allowed in amateur football. If you leave the pitch, you can come back. It’s not allowed in professional football. We let everyone play.
- Who chooses the tactics for the game?
-Do you know this funny video about a cyclist, “From the very beginning I had some tactics and I stuck to it”? That’s what we do. We have many teams and the tactics is determined by the coach. What is good about amateur football is that, as a coach, you can play around, change the tactics right during the game or from one game to another.
Tactics is a complicated thing; there are lots and lots of small details. Even football players do not know all of them; they just complete the tasks set by the coach. Of course there is tactics for the game and for every player. And for the rival as well.
GirlPower is a place where every girl, whatever her abilities and talent, can go to the pitch and play as much as the most successful, the quickest and the most talented girl plays. As long as we are GirlPower. Sometimes the girls ask, “I came yesterday and now I am training with the girls who have been playing for three years already. Will I be taken into the game?” Yes, you will. How much time will you be on the field? As the coach decides. And the coach will decide that you will be playing as much as is comfortable for you. And even if you play well, it doesn’t mean you are entitled to request more time on the pitch from the coach. We are all equal. In our school, no one will tell you that you are a bad player and you won’t play in the competitions. No one will say, “Maybe, you should give it up?”
- Do you have any in-house rules in your school?
-These values are not written, we pass them on by word of mouth. Our main value is love. Love for each other, for what we do, for how we do it. And love is everywhere here, first of all, in the relationships between people. The coach loves a girl who scores from 30 m as much as the girl who saw the ball for the first time only yesterday. Loves breeds respect, care and solidarity. We always share: play time, balls, uniforms. If there is a party, it’s for everyone. If we take pictures, we do it all together. This is a territory of absolute equality. You can be good or special here only if the people decide you are special, not just because you are a cool player. It’s not about football, it’s about relationships.
We don’t wait till people pick their roles. You know, when you come to an office, there is a culture of its own there: someone is a leader, someone is a troublemaker, someone is a rumormonger, someone is an outsider. We have kind of blocked the opportunity of picking a role for the girls. They can be part of the culture transmitted by us. That’s why we don’t have things you sometimes find with female staff. The most amusing is that this is not a “women’s culture”; this is a “human culture”.
Girls never argue or blame each other on the pitch; we have prohibited it right from the start. If you don’t come on time for the first training and you’ve been told about it, you decide whether to play with us or not.
- What do you think, does your potential fan objectify you? I mean, are you treated first of all as women in a pretty uniform or rather as athletes?
- We knew from the very beginning what stereotypes we are going to face: girls in shorts, tight T-shirts, even better if they are short and wet from the rain. But the girls don’t come here to run around in a pretty uniform. Of course, every girl wants to look beautiful, but beauty is not about painted nails, makeup and tight clothes. Beauty is about something else. If you look at our photos from the games, you will understand it better. They, too, show what is beautiful for us: for example, when a girl is running, fighting for the ball, her hair messed up and no makeup on, there are so many emotions in it, so much energy. This is the power of the moment. It has a beauty of its own. It’s far from the beauty a layman may think of.
When a girl puts on a sport uniform, an outfit, it’s beautiful, because it’s an introduction to the entire culture. It revives castles of associations and impressions. She puts on a uniform which is connected with lots of things for her, like her dreams, desires, the team, the air inside.
At an older age I played hockey. When you spend forty minutes putting on all this armor, pulling on the leggings, you are already becoming a part of this culture, this beauty. Actually, I think we could make a class where people just come and put on the uniform, and that would be the sense of the training.
I’m joking, of course, but the most important feelings do begin in the dressing room. This is where a training or a game starts. All of my deepest feelings from my sports childhood are somehow connected with the moments I had in the dressing room – the place where you can concentrate and think over everything that’s awaiting you or that’s just happened to you on the field.
- What difficulties do the girls face when they come to women’s football?
-The most important is the mental stumbling block, the stereotypes. “I don’t want to be mocked. How will I look? I can’t do anything”. A little girl wants to play football and she starts thinking: what if they won’t take her, what if there are only boys there, what if the coach doesn’t like her, what if her mother says she’d better go dancing. The same happens to adult women.
Most girls coming to us go over the shyness barrier one way or another. They text me, “Could I come to the training?” Look, if you wanted to get a driving license, would you write to the training center: “Could I come?” You would just come. Of course, you can!
A girl can own a business of her own or be a successful expert in her field, but when she even thinks about coming to the field, she becomes very shy. She gets into this grave of shame: she hasn’t done anything yet and she is already extremely embarrassed. Yet, the time passes by and the number of girls in our school is growing. Maybe, in a couple of years we could make an older team and go to the retirees’ World Cup? We have played at the Russian Cup after all.
- How do you see the future of women’s football?
-Everything that happens in the football world is supervised by FIFA. Some years ago FIFA announced its strategy for the coming 10 years, which is make women’s football the most popular women’s sport in the world. Why? Two billion men play football worldwide, there is nowhere to grow. Everyone who could have liked football and wanted to play it already has the opportunity. And the girls haven’t had it. Imagine: now there are some hundreds of thousands who play, and there will be billions. Football usually grows from the mass sports. A girl goes outside and kicks the ball. Then she goes to a club and after that she becomes a professional player.
There are around 200 girls in our school, one hundred plays regularly, one hundred comes and goes. If we keep doing what we are doing, in a couple of years we will be 500, or maybe a thousand. Just because the time moves on and FIFA does its job, football is becoming more and more available for girls.
-Do you personally follow professional football?
-I watch the games, but it’s difficult for me to be a fan: I begin to judge the game from the coach’s point of view at once.
For me, professional football is an interesting social phenomenon: people need to support someone, need someone to protect their flags. This is the safest kind of patriotism, not a military one, yet a combative one. Where else can people have such strong emotions? People need to demonstrate their power and they do it through their national team. On the one hand, it’s a cruel phenomenon: millions of people watch 22 guys play football. I feel a little embarrassed when I look at it from the moral point of view. Say, there is a child who comes to me. I want to help him, many years I hold his hand, but do I want him to fight? I want him to enjoy the game.
But we can never avoid the mass. The bigger the crowd, the less morality there is. And from this point of view, football is the safest place where the crowd can’t establish its cruel rules. Let it better be football than war.
Thank God there is football. It becomes some sort of a legal battle, where people don’t die but feel united.