At 75, former footballer Baerbel Wohlleben still clearly remembers the moment in 1974 when a journalist asked, “but when you head the ball, doesn’t it mess up your hair?”
At that time, Wohlleben had already turned 30, but was only officially three years into her career as a footballer, because until 1971 the German Football Association (DFB) banned women from playing in competitions.
Moreover, any clubs allowing women to train or play at their facilities was liable to be sanctioned.
“…this aggressive sport is essentially alien to the nature of woman,” decreed the DFB in 1955.
“In the fight for the ball, the feminine grace vanishes, body and soul will inevitably suffer harm.”
Back then, even the idea of women wearing shorts was clearly a problem for the DFB as “the display of the body offends decency and modesty”.
Nevertheless, the sexist rules from a bygone era did not stop Wohlleben playing football and she will be cheering the German team at the women’s World Cup kick-off in France this June.
At the age of 10, she kicked a ball for the first time on July 5, 1954 – the day West Germany won the World Cup for the first time by beating hot-favourites Hungary 3-2 in the final in Bern, Switzerland.
The “Miracle of Bern”, as Germans still regard it, saw their team come from 2-0 down against the mighty Hungarians.
“We were invited to a neighbour’s house and it was the first time I had seen a television,” remembered Wohlleben.
“After the victory, we celebrated like crazy, went down to the garden and that’s where I said ‘I want to play football’.
For the next four years, she trained alongside boys at the same club as her three brothers, even playing some games at Under-15 level.
However, with women’s football then frowned upon in German society, Wohlleben drifted away.
She played handball until, aged 27, a group of girls assembled a team in Woerrstadt, near her village of Ingelheim, where Wohlleben still lives.
“We were playing friendlies, on pitches which were half grass, half sand, because competition was forbidden by the DFB,” explained Wohlleben.
“We never had any training sessions together, but played a few games against Denmark and Italy. The DFB knew it, they allowed us to play, but still told us ‘you do not have the right to form a national team’.”
Wohlleben never actually became a full international, because she was no longer playing regularly by the time the first recognised women’s international took place when a West Germany team beat the Swiss 5-1 in 1982.
In 1974, the first sanctioned women’s championships took place in Germany and Woerrstadt made it to the final, beating Gelsenkirchen 4-0 with Wohlleben scoring her team’s superb third goal from a tight angle 20 metres out.
She was soon in for a surprise.
“I received a phonecall from Cologne, from the national (television) broadcaster, and was told my goal was chosen as the goal of the month for September – a woman had never won the award before,” Wohlleben said.
“I didn’t believe it – I thought it was nonsense.”
After some persuasion that it was not a hoax, she proudly received her medal in Cologne, but, 45 years on, she still chuckles at the questions she faced.
“What does your husband think about it? Does he agree with it? Who looks after the home when you’re playing?
“I told them, ‘my husband can also cook, why shouldn’t he?’
“It was a different time, you have to remembered that until 1977, German women were not allowed to work without the written consent of their husbands.”
Even in the twilight of her years, Wohlleben is still a strong personality with infectious enthusiasm – she claims to have never suffered directly from sexism as a footballer.
“Those watching laughed at the girls who were playing badly, but they had nothing to laugh at with me – I had been playing football for years with the boys and I had some talent.
“There were some obscene expressions that were below the belt, but that just reflects the character of the individual, who behaves like that.”
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