Being seven years old and a football fan is not particularly unusual. Being seven years old and a women's football fan was, in fact, unusual - and probably still is. And what was really unsettling about it was that no one else seemed to care!
A rare first-person account of growing up as a women's football fan in Norway in the 90s.
The summer of '95
Growing up as a sports fan in Norway in the 1990s was in many ways an excellent thing. Our skiers and skaters were out conquering the world, and happily, it was all beamed directly to our television screens from Japan, Italy, and Canada. The men's football team had qualified for the World Cup for the first time ever, and would have done much better if not for crazy rules and Italian shenanigans. The women's handballers were starting an eternal rivalry with big sisters Denmark. and then, suddenly, in the summer of 1995 we had a world-famous* women's football team.
This girl, born in 1987, hadn't really got the message four years earlier, when Norway lost the World Cup final to United States of America. (Perhaps for the best: after all, they had been outclassed 0–4 by hosts, China in the group stage).
The team was filled with players who had built a career for themselves: squad leader Linda Medalen had been picked up by Nikko in Japan, along with veteran midfielder Tone Haugen. There was ball queen Hege Riise, the indefatigable Heidi Støre, goal-thieves Ann Kristin 'Anka' Aarønes and Marianne Pettersen, and the best goalkeeper in the world at the time, Bente Nordby, from Toten. Most of them played in Norway and would later try their luck in USA or East Asia, taking part in the first fits and starts of professionalism.
With six matches in thirteen days (to the pros complaining about the schedule today, please spare a thought for your foremothers), the squad was ever-present on our screens at home. Amid all the football festivities, however, there was a melancholic tinge. Whenever I wanted to bring up my excitement about Norway being in the World Cup final, people would just look back blankly, or say, "What World Cup", or worse, "Oh, it's only women, they don't play real football."
It was demoralising. On some deep level, it showed me that, in the end, people didn't care about women's achievements, or if they did it was only if they could connect it to the men - who hogged the spotlight from April to November. The football was, perhaps, not of the highest quality, but the men's team had succeeded with Charlie Reep-inspired route one, and we were told to go all out supporting them.
Highs before lows
There were numerous attempts both from the federation and clubs to build some interest around the successful women's players. The Euros in 1997 had a more professional schedule, and were shared between Norway and Sweden, the two European nations where women's football had the highest relative standing at the time.
Norway's match with Germany drew over 7,500 spectators in Moss; a town of nearly 30,000 people who generally don't go out of their homes on Sundays. However, UEFA conspired to put four of the best five teams in one group and Norway drew the short straw, exiting in the group stage.
The 2000 Olympic gold was a brief flicker of performance, but let's face it, Dagny Mellgren had clearly been inspired by another D.M. when she scored the winner against USA. The Americans got their revenge three years later, winning the quarter-final in the SARS-moved World Cup of 2003, a match which essentially ended the rivalry between the two. Since then, USA have played the same style of football but bigger, stronger, and faster, bulldozing all teams that have dared to stand in their way.
Domestically, there was also some growth stories; from the late 1990s, the national cup final was shown on TV, often providing more entertainment than the men (Medkila's cupset in 2003 and the frenzied 4-3 extra time win by Trondheims-Ørn in 2002 particular highlights). But for all the good it did having the cup final on the same weekend as the men, it also invited the same tired comparisons "Oh, the crowd isn't as big", "The girls aren't running as fast", and so on.
My first memory of a live domestic game is from 2008, when I went to Røa's win over Team Strømmen (now LSK) with a friend. It was 2°C and pissing down with rain, but I liked the women in red, who played a direct but patient game seeing options both along the ground and in the air. In the following years, I went to a number of matches, always enjoying the football but remaining conscious that only 100 or 200 souls were there with me. The numbers were larger at cup finals, but, did they really care, or had they just come for the free tickets or because the coach of the U10 team had told them to?
Norwegian women's football remains in this cul-de-sac of heckling and indifference from the sidelines, uncertain about its own position. Players have tirelessly worked as hard as they could to become the best they can be, given the structural obstacles in their way, but the wider Norwegian community has said a resounding, "no" in various ways, loud and quiet. Perhaps that's why many of Noway's prominent female footballers no longer think the national audience is important, or just something to milk for sponsorship Kroner; they have learned from the miserable lessons of the past.
Nevertheless, despite the grim lessons, I have arranged to travel to Reims for the 2019 World Cup, and will be fully supporting whatever Norway XI turns up. Thinking maybe, somewhere in Norway there's a 7-year-old child watching the World Cup in beautiful 4k HD, falling in love with the sport just as I did all those years ago.