Last night Iceland’s men beat England to reach the quarter-finals in their first-ever European Championship, yet their women’s team have nearly qualified for their fourth Euros without the same fanfare
28 June ~ When the Icelandic men’s team qualified for Euro 2016, articles were published around the world about it being an unprecedented milestone for a nation of only 330,000. However, this is not the first time Iceland have qualified for a European Championship. In fact, this is the fourth. The national women’s football team have played in the Euros three times – in 1995, 2009 and 2013 – and have almost qualified for Euro 2017. The men’s team are ranked 34th in the world, the women’s team are 20th.
The myth of a feminist liberal paradise at the northern tip of the Atlantic Ocean is to an extent based on fact. Iceland routinely tops global gender equality rankings, it may be one of first countries in the world to close the gender pay gap and gender quotas are routinely used in government committees. However, gender inequality and discrimination are still rampant.
The first official women’s league game was played in 1970 with the national team founded 11 years later. (The women’s teams are same as the men’s and often there is a correlation in the quality; Breidablik, from just outside Reykjavik, have won titles in both leagues recently.) In 1987, however, the national squad was effectively decommissioned by the local football federation (KSI).
The team were not officially disbanded as such but instead not given any fixtures, funding or support. They were not revived until 1992 after prolonged lobbying. A year later they qualified for the Euros after winning all of their qualifying games. In the knockout quarter-finals they lost 2-1 twice to England, in Reykjavik and Brighton.
Discrimination was rife during those years and still lingers to this day. Thirty years ago women’s teams were given inconvenient practice times and often not allowed to play on grass – when they were, football boots were sometimes forbidden to avoid wearing out the pitch. Meanwhile, coverage in the national newspapers was threadbare.
Gender equality in international football has had widespread press coverage recently. The biggest story being the wage discrepancy between the US national teams, where top international players such as Hope Solo, Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan have gone public with their fight to get equal pay to the men’s national team. The US women’s team are ranked first in the world, the men’s 31st.
An argument about which team is more profitable seems to underpin the proceedings but there are deeper issues at stake. Female players in Iceland are semi-professional – anyone who wants to make a living out of the game must move abroad. Many have played professionally in Scandinavia, some in England and a few have risen through the ranks of US college football then turned professional.
Every year an unofficial publication, Islensk knattspyrna (Icelandic football), covers the local football season on a national and international level. It is fascinating to see coverage develop over the decades and how little was written about female players – a women’s league team finally graced the cover in 2002. Before then it was the custom to give a women’s team a smaller photo if they got one at all. But in 2008, when they qualified for the Euros in Finland after beating Ireland 3- 0 in Reykjavik, the national team finally got the front cover.
Progress has been made. The support systems for the national teams are now comparable and the press coverage is improving each year. However, the undercurrents of inequality are strong, especially in the leagues. It became abundantly clear recently when a newspaper published an advert featuring the sports commentating team of the private TV channel Stod 2 Sport, which has the broadcasting rights to league games.
There were 12 men, almost identically dressed. It wasn’t even a fair representation of their coverage as Helena Olafsdottir, a former national team captain, hosts a regular programme on the same station covering the women’s league. There was swift outrage on social media but the photograph bears witness to the work still to be done on a national level.
When the men’s side qualified for Euro 2016 many celebrated like it was the first time an Icelandic football team had ever got so far in an international competition. Plans are being made for a massive screen to be erected in downtown Reykjavik to show Iceland’s matches. The women’s team did not get a screen in 2009 or 2013, but hopefully that will be rectified if they travel to the Netherlands in July 2017. Sigridur Jonsdottir