Words by Giorgi Rodionov and Monica Ellena
Photos by Giorgi Rodionov
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 music.
“The stadium is in front of the music school. I was 10 and before every class I’d stop to watch the boys training, I was often late for my music classes. But back then I could not even imagine that as a girl I could play the soccer,” recalls 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 — bottom line, 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 Georgia’s 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.
Starting in October 2019, 48 teams will go through the qualifying rounds and seven teams will head to Tbilisi for the finals in July 2020. Georgia, as host country, is automatically qualified as the eighth team in the competition. The event means the world for players like Mozaidze, and not only because she’ll will play - it will put a seal of recognition on female soccer, a sport that is struggling to be respected at home.
Eka Kartsivadze knows this struggle far too well. The team manager of the female soccer team Tbilisi's Tbilisi 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; in fact for girls getting to kick a ball on a pitch is in itself a victory. Like in Mozaidze’s village, Georgians still see the game as something exclusively for boys.
Mozaide recalls how her teachers were very dismissive of her playing, an attitude that most girls like her face. In supporting HeforShe, the worldwide solidarity campaign by UN Women, the United Nations agency advocating for women’s rights, the heads the Ministry of Youth and Sport’s Research and Analysis division, Vasili Liparteliani, said that “[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.”
Easier said than done, as often the problem starts at home.
“I know of girls who face abuse from their families who are ashamed that their girls play soccer,” laments Kartsivadze, adding that they are not considered feminine enough. “Many parents just don’t attend the matches.”
And it is not only soccer. A report by UN Women 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 of the reasons is related to the widespread stereotypes that divide sports along masculine and feminine lines.”
The women’s Georgian national team had its first international match in 1999, against Serbia. The irony is that the country did not have a national championship until 2016, because there were no clubs to hold it with. Until 2003 essentially Georgia had only one female team, explains Nino Sordia, who heads the Women’s Football Federation of Georgia. At that time, about 30 girls were actively involved in working on making female soccer a reality.
“[In 2016] We started with six teams as that was the maximum number that could satisfy the basic standards [set by UEFA],” explains Nino Sordia who heads the Women’s division of the Georgian Football Federation (GFF), after years at the helm of the referee department of the national federation. These standards include norms on the size of the soccer pitch and its surface, capacity of the stadiums and on equipment. For the Under-19 the GFF would need to make available four stadiums in line with the international standards for the official matches, plus eight ad-hoc facilities for the guest teams to train. Currently Georgia’s female national team does not have its own stadium, it has to borrow the men’s training base in Lagodekhi, in eastern Georgia, and one of the clubs’ for official matches in Tbilisi.
The championship in 2016 was a breakthrough, not least because it empowered girls who felt there was a future for them. By 2018 there were already 10 teams and Sordia expects the championship 2019-2020 to feature 12 teams.
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 president Aleksander Ceferin, who since his appointment in 2016 has made boosting women’s soccer a priority for the organization. One of the measures was to separate the Champions’ League finals: in 2019 they will be held in two different cities: the women will play in Budapest, the men in Madrid.
Female referees are also on the rise and in Georgia the referees’ academy set up by the GFF in 2017 had seven women in its first cohort last year. Even there, sexism and stereotypes remain.
“I recall when the coach of a prominent female soccer club refused to play a match when he found out that the referee was a woman,” reveals a source who asked to remain anonymous.
But it can be worse — a former coach of team Tbilisi's Tbilisi for example had to be dismissed for psychological harassment and bullying.
“He used to tell the girls that they deserve nothing and they are nobody,” Kartsivadze explains. “Instead of encouraging and supporting the girls, he used to rush in girls dressing room and kick the walls with his feet. Everyone knew that but I was the only one who spoke out.”
She filed an official complaint to the GFF which carried out an investigation confirming the claims.
In 2016 Kartsivadze also set up the Women’s Football Development and Support Fund, an independent organization which aims to provide support, including much needed cash, for female soccer players. Kartsivadze has received backing from the Tbilisi municipality and UN Women, but its core funding comes from private donations. The clubs remain cash-stripped and their survival depends on passion and GFF or other donors’ goodwill. When the Tbilisi-based team Nike won the championship in 2018 glory was all the players got as the award came with no money attached. It is a vicious circle: lack of interest and support leads to less money. Sordia is aware of that and said that “out of good will, the Federation gave the clubs the financial support of 10,000 lari to prevent them from falling behind,” while in 2017 the Tbilisi City Hall granted 4,560 lari ($1,727) to the women’s league.
Elene Raukh, Kartsivadze’s 16-year-old daughter and defender in the national team, remembers that when she started playing three years ago, she used to train on a pitch that was about 100 meters long and they could used it only if it was not used by the local boy team.
Girls need a thick skin. As she train in Tbilisi’s outskirts Raukhi maintains that those who love the sport have to overcome the barriers and never give up. The key is to keep playing.
“Do not allow anyone to stop [you].”
Mozaidze dreams to move and play in Spain. But she also wants her passion to inspire others and plans to fundraise for a stadium in her home village — for her fellow girl soccer players.
Millennials, February/March 2019
Additional reporting on a story was done by Monica Ellena