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Ellen Wille, the mother of women’s football

Valery Hache, AFP | Norway's players celebrate their victory at the end of the France 2019 Women's World Cup round of sixteen football match between Norway and Australia, on June 22, 2019, at the Stade de Nice stadium in southeastern France.

1986 was a pivotal year in the development of women’s football. At the 45th Fifa Congress, a woman was invited to speak for the first time. This woman was Ellen Wille, now considered by many to be the ‘mother’ of contemporary women’s football.

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Wille used her moment in the spotlight to demand that women’s football no longer be ignored. Unexpectedly, the majority of male delegates agreed. Women’s football was belatedly getting its deserved place on the global pitch.

“I’d already fought to get women’s football recognised in Norway, and I wanted to continue that fight internationally,” said the 65-year-old football pioneer in an interview with FIFA.

Wille herself started out as a handball player (the second most popular sport in Norway at the time after skiing). As a teenager in 1971, she played with the Frigg amateur handball club in Oslo. During training sessions, she and the other girls often used a football to improve their footwork skills. One day, Wille asked her teammates if they would be interested in starting an unofficial football competition. They agreed and Wille asked other handball players in the district if they wanted to join in. She soon had 16 teams competing against each other.

This all could have happened without the rest of the country noticing, but the story was picked up by Dagbladet, one of Norway’s largest newspapers. Even still, Wille remembers that nobody took them seriously. Sexism was clearly prevalent in the sport, but Wille was not willing to accept the status quo. So she joined the Norwegian Football Federation (NFF) in 1976.

She faced an uphill battle. There was not enough funding for everyone and officials could not understand why they should reduce financial support for boys in order to support girls. “The men thought we were going to steal their resources, that’s what they were obsessed with,” remembered Wille in an interview with French daily newspaper Libération. “They didn’t understand that if more people put pressure on elected officials to build pitches, it would serve everyone, and that they would soon have more coaches and referees if the whole population was involved in football.”

Wille spent two decades stalking the corridors of the NFF, from 1970 and 1990. “I was much more useful negotiating in the offices than on the field. I’ve never been a very good football player,” she said, although she was regarded as a top striker at amateur level for ten years. She also travelled around to every club individually to fight her case for the girls, highlighting their huge untapped potential. Eventually, the idea took root.

This is how she found herself walking to the podium at the 45th FIFA Congress in Mexico City in 1986. The Norwegian federation had chosen Wille to be the central part of its presentation. They entrusted her with the mission of “promoting the diversity of the discipline” in front of international elected officials.

It proved to be the tipping point. Until then, the only women who participated in these meetings were there as translators.

“Imagine this situation. Me, standing at just 1.50m in height and the microphone too high, in front of a hundred men, well aware that I am the first woman to stand in this gallery…. It was terrifying,” recalled Wille.

“I actually changed the beginning of my speech right at the very last minute. FIFA had sent us its annual report a few hours earlier, and there was only half a page on women’s football. Half a page! 99.9% of this report was for men only. So I had to start my speech with a scream of anger.”

This speech must have created quite an impression, as the Norwegian delegation immediately called for the creation of both a Women’s Football World Cup and for a place for women footballers in the Olympic programme. FIFA agreed to both demands.

Women’s football has always had to fight for recognition. In the early part of the 20th century in Britain, women’s football grew almost as quickly as the men’s game, and reached new heights when the nation’s men left for WWI. The pitches were filled with women and spectators turned out in their droves, happy to be distracted from war stories. But, in 1921, the Football Association (FA) took the extreme decision to ban women’s football so as to reclaim it as a sport for men. Women’s football was left to languish.

However, women were determined to keep football going and it has grown steadily ever since. The European Championship for women was launched in 1984. And, in 1991, FIFA organized the first official women’s World Cup in China as a direct follow-on from Wille’s decisive speech. This came came 61 years after the first men’s game in 1930.

Forty-five countries participated in the qualifying rounds for the women’s cup in ’91. For this year’s competition, there were more than 120 countries involved. In 1996, women footballers competed for the first time at the Atlanta Olympics.

“Women’s football has taken huge steps forward,” said Wille.

Today, football is the most popular sport played by Norwegian women, with more than 110,000 women playing it competitively. This is almost 30% of the total number of players in Norway (in contrast, French female players barely reach 8%). There has obviously been major progress in some areas, however there has been utter inertia in terms of taking players to a professional level.

Since October 2017, the national women’s team in Norway has been paid the same amount as the men (€640,000 per team, per year). But the problem goes beyond this. “In the first division, women footballers who are 100% pro are exceptional cases. The majority of players are paid only two days a week for training and must work part-time on the side.”

Wille has now retired from her official career as a science teacher in a secondary school. But she is happy to be remembered for her achievements in football. “At home, they call me the mother of Norwegian women’s football,” she revealed. However, respect is due to her from female football players across the world.

Wille has also acknowledged the views of Ada Hegerberg, winner of the inaugural Women’s Ballon d’Or in 2018. The most famous female striker in the world, Hegerberg has refused to play for Norway’s national team for the past two years.

“She [Hegerberg] criticises our federation for not doing enough,” said Wille. “I hear her arguments, I understand them to a large extent. But we must not ignore all the work accomplished since 1971. I hope she will come back one day. Norwegian women’s football needs role models like her on the pitch to further its cause.”

Norwary’s current women’s team has overcome Hegerberg’s absence to progress to the quarterfinals in this year’s World Cup. They face England on Thursday at 9pm Paris time.

Wille, however, will not be present. It looks as though FIFA forgot to invite her.

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