A 40-year track record of passion and commitment to women's football, continuing to this day in his role as coach of German women's Bundesliga side Turbine Potsdam, comfortably marks out Bernd Schroder as a pioneer in women's football. Speaking exclusively to FIFA.com, the 69-year-old discussed the women's game in the former GDR, and milestones in the development of the sport.
Schroder’s eventful career in the women's game began in 1971, although it was more by accident than design. “Big events, just like big inventions, generally happen by chance. That's just the way it is,” the coach said. “In the former GDR, sports clubs were attached to specific companies or organisations. Turbine Potsdam was an energy company’s works club. Someone put out a call to establish a women's team.
"Totally by coincidence, I was in the clubhouse when the women held their first meeting. Forty people had signalled an interest, and there they were. I took in the situation, and spontaneously decided to give it a go for a while. But I never thought I'd be doing it for 40 years," he told FIFA.com with a broad grin.
A happy accident
In March 1971, an anonymous author pinned a note to the energy company’s bulletin board, calling on parties interested in forming a women's football team to sign up in the clubhouse. “That's exactly how it was. You hear a number of versions of the story these days, but that's really what happened," Schroder confirmed. On 5 March 1971, Turbine Potsdam officially established a women's football section. No-one could know it at the time, but it was the first chapter in a long and successful story.
“At the end of the 60s and beginning of the 70s, women's football took on a dynamic of its own,” Schroder explained. “All over Europe, the number of teams mushroomed. That's what happened in the GDR, where we suddenly had more than 300 teams, although many disappeared very quickly. But it was very interesting, seeing the word spread around Europe that women's football could be a big thing in the years to come. And we were there at the start. We were a big club offering a wide variety of sports, and we wanted a women's football section, although it really was mainly by accident."
As Turbine’s subsequent history shows, it was a more than happy accident. The club played in the GDR top flight until 1990, claiming the title six times. “Our problem was our inability to play international matches. We weren't classified as an elite sporting discipline, so we weren't permitted to play outside the socialist bloc. Obviously, we played in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, but we never had the chance to play truly international matches, so there was no opportunity to compare ourselves with others and assess whether we were really any good," reflected Schroder.
The long-serving coach believes attitude was a major factor in Turbine’s dominance in the GDR, and the underlying reason why the club rates as one of the most successful in German and European women's football. “If you take something on, your heart has to be in it, and you have to be passionate. I've always had people around me who took the whole thing extremely seriously, and never regarded it as a passing fad," he explained.
"We also had a handful of politicians standing up for us on certain committees. Right from the start, we insisted it wasn't just a leisure sport or hobby. Some people who started out with us are still there today, continuing the legacy in practical ways. We have stable structures, with the town and the state behind us all the way."
The club’s spectacular honours list tells its own story. Following the glory days in the former GDR, Turbine went on to win five German titles (2004, 2006, 2009, 2010 and 2011), the UEFA Women's Cup in 2005, the UEFA Women’s Champions League in 2010, and a German cup hat-trick from 2004 to 2006.
In the turbulent period prior to German reunification, the original works association was dissolved in 1990 and reconstituted as a charitable foundation. The sports sections were incorporated in the newly formed SSV Turbine Potsdam, literally the sports and games club, which also boasted a women's football section. That in turn was the precursor to the FFC Turbine Potsdam of today, officially founded on 1 September 1999. It was a decade of change and consolidation, out of which a radically different version of the women's game emerged.
Higher pace, more injuries
Schroder’s views on the subject are mixed. “The levels of athleticism and pace increased, but the number of injuries has gone up as well," he said. "It's much more demanding physically, and that’s causing injuries we never had in the early days, ligament and cruciate damage in particular. But if you watch a top match nowadays, you’ll see high-quality football at a high pace."
“In my opinion, women's football hasn't yet become straitjacketed by tactics, and you sense the players are still enjoying their football. You get more goals as a result. I personally much prefer a game ending 6–5 or 5–3, rather than 1–0 or a goalless draw."
Schroder readily acknowledges the daunting work ahead in order to continue the positive development in the women's game. “Thirty per cent of the spectators at a men's match are there simply because it's an event. Why? Because they play in superb stadiums where the fans feel at home, and where they lack nothing, including a fantastic atmosphere.
"We don't have this in women's football. We need better stadiums. We need smaller, dedicated football stadiums, where the people develop an identity and affinity of their own. We'll only make progress in women's football if we have the right product," declared the 69-year-old. “However, our supporters are very appreciative of the players’ efforts."
Better arenas are not the only factor identified by Schroder as vital for the sport’s future. “You have to have a sensible youth development policy. We have such a policy, developed jointly with Potsdam Sports Academy. We have 60 girls in the youth development section at present, starting from seventh grade right through to high school graduation age. It's unique in Germany, and maybe in the world." Indeed, back in 2006, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn Sports Academy in Potsdam was the first school certified by the German FA (DFB) as an elite academy for girls’ football.
In the final analysis, Schroder accepts that further progress in women’s club football depends on the paying customers, concluding: “It's all well and good, but at the end of the day, it's up to the individual fan to choose whether or not to go and watch women's football."