TBILISI–Growing up in Zemo Alvani, Ana Mozaidze did not think about playing soccer – like many other girls in her village of 3,000 people in eastern Georgia, she studied piano. “The stadium is in front of the music school. I was 10 and I’d stop to watch the boys training, I was often late for my classes. But back then I could not even imagine that as a girl I could play soccer,” recalled Ana, now 17.
She eventually did. After one year of watching, the coach of the local team noticed her and asked her to join in. Everyone, including her family, thought that her passion would fade with time — soccer is for boys, not girls. Ana proved everyone wrong and swapped the piano for the ball that she now kicks as a defender for Norchi Dinamoeli, a women’s football club in the capital Tbilisi. She plays in the same role in the Under-19 women national team which is gearing up to compete in the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Under-19 women championship that Tbilisi will host in 2020.
In July 2020, seven qualified teams will head to Tbilisi for the championship finals. Georgia, as the host country, is automatically qualified. The event means the world for players like Ms. Mozaidze, and not only because she’ll play – it will put a seal of recognition on women in soccer.
Eka Kartsivadze knows the struggle far too well. The team manager of the “Tbilisi” female soccer team Tbilisi’s has long been frustrated by the constant battle to find pretty much everything – coaches, funds, facilities and equipment.
The lack of funds, however, is not the only obstacle – for girls getting to kick a ball is in itself a victory as Georgians still see the game as something exclusively for boys. “[We] need to change the mindset that certain sports are intended only for girls or for boys. Girls’ involvement in sport is their decision entirely, and it should not be subject to public judgment,” said Vasili Liparteliani, a senior official of the Ministry of Youth and Sport.
Easier said than done, as often the problem starts at home. “Families who are ashamed that their girls play soccer,” lamented Ms. Kartsivadze, adding that they are not considered feminine enough. “Many parents just don’t attend the matches.” It is not only soccer. A report by UN Women, the United Nations agency advocating for women’s rights, noted that “in some sports, such as chess, fencing and archery, Georgian women are very successful in the global arena, but only 10 percent of girls and women in Georgia are involved in sport. One reason is that the widespread stereotypes that divide sports along masculine and feminine lines.”
When the national team had its first international match in 1999, against Serbia, Georgia did not even have a national championship because there were no clubs with whom to hold it. Until 2003 there was only one female team and about 30 girls who worked on making women soccer a reality. “We started the championship in 2016 with only the six teams able to satisfy the basic UEFA standards,” explained Nino Sordia who heads the Women’s division of the Georgian Football Federation (GFF). For the Under-19 the GFF will need four stadiums in line with the international standards, plus eight facilities for the guest teams to train. Currently, the women’s national team does not have its own stadium: it borrows the men’s training base in eastern Georgia and one of the clubs’ for official matches in the capital.
The championship in 2016 was a breakthrough: in 2018 there were ten teams and Mr. Sordia expects 12 for the championship 2019-2020.
The rise is in line with the stellar growth of women’s soccer worldwide, particularly in Europe. In 2018 UEFA announced that it will increase by 50 percent the funding for women’s soccer development projects in a bid to make it Europe’s biggest female sport. “The potential for women’s football is limitless,” said UEFA’s president Aleksander Ceferin, who has made boosting women’s soccer a priority for the organization. One of the first measures was to decide on two separate Champions’ League finals: in 2019 the women will play in Budapest, the men in Madrid.
Female referees are also on the rise and last year the academy set up by the GFF in 2017 had seven women in its first cohort. Even there, sexism and stereotypes remain. “The coach of a female soccer club refused to play a match when he found out that the referee was a woman,” revealed a source who asked to remain anonymous.
It can be worse — a former coach of team Tbilisi’s Tbilisi, for example, was dismissed for psychological harassment and bullying. “He used to tell the girls that they deserved nothing, they were nobody,” explained Ms. Kartsivadze who also founded the Women’s Football Development and Support Fund, an independent organization which aims to provide support, including much-needed cash, for female soccer players.
When the Tbilisi-based team Nike won the championship in 2018 glory was all the players got: the award came with no money attached. It is a vicious circle: lack of interest and support leads to less money. Mr. Sordia is aware of that and said that “out of good will, the Federation gave the clubs the financial support of 10,000 lari ($3,707) to prevent them from falling behind,” while in 2017 the Tbilisi City Hall granted 4,560 lari ($1,727) to the women’s league.
Girls need a thick skin, said Elene Raukhi, Kartsivadze’s 16-year-old daughter and defender in the national team. As she trains in Tbilisi’s outskirts Ms. Raukhi maintains that those who love the sport have to overcome the barriers and never give up. “Do not allow anyone to stop [you].” Mozaidze dreams to play in Spain. But she also wants to inspire others and plans to fundraise for a stadium in her home village — for her fellow girl soccer players.