When the top stars of the women’s game take to the pitch, fans cannot help but be enthralled by their graceful movement and nimble footwork as they pass the ball around. The female version of the world’s most beautiful game is high on elegance. Yet tenacity can also be a female characteristic – something those in Germany, home to the reigning world champions and hosts of the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2011™, know only too well.

Around the world, excitement is already mounting ahead of this summer’s gathering of the world’s best teams in the homeland of Birgit Prinz, Nadine Angerer and Co. However, the tournament will also mark the anniversary of another very special milestone, as fans and players alike look back on 40 years of women’s football in Germany in which much has changed.

“It was above all our tenacity that enabled us to progress,” explained Hannelore Ratzeburg. Her pride is evident. After all, the Vice-President of the German Football Association (DFB) knows only too well that the women’s game has come an extremely long way from those early days to its present status, when matches are played in front of tens of thousands of fans. The structures and youth development in German women’s football are now used as an example by others around the world, but until 30 October 1970 it was against the law for women even to play the game.

“Football was regarded as a rough, physical sport ill-suited to women. For this reason, they were always held back from taking part in the game,” recalled Ratzeburg, who practically pioneered women’s football in Germany. “Less was also known about female physical capacity in the 1950s, but those women who were absolutely determined to play football carried on playing regardless,” adds the 59-year-old from Hamburg.

Football was regarded as a rough, physical sport ill-suited to women. For this reason, they were always held back from taking part in the game.

Hannelore Ratzeburg, Vice-President of the German Football Association

Some of the behaviour before the autumn of 1970 seems inconceivable today. Clubs were discouraged from allowing women to play football on their pitches and there was even scientific research to suggest kicking was a specifically male trait and not kicking a female trait. Women were encouraged to take part in sports such as swimming, athletics, handball, gymnastics and skiing. It was only when the German Football Association finally lifted the ban, at a meeting in Travemünde on the last Friday in October 40 years ago, that the ball was finally set in motion for women.

A Christmas tale
Ratzeburg, who many years later would go on to become the first woman to be elected to the German Football Association’s Executive Committee and who is also a long-serving member of FIFA’s Committee for Women’s Football and the FIFA Women’s World Cup, has a sparkle in her eyes as she thinks back on this time, which was in many ways revolutionary: “I remember this period well. It was the era of the 1968 student protests. I’d just left school and had always been a great believer in justice. I was astonished in October 1970 to see the widespread newspaper coverage being devoted to women’s football. I was at a Christmas party at my then boyfriend’s football club and we were having a lively discussion on the matter, and I thought: I’m going to give that a go!”

The period that followed saw regional women’s football scenes spring up all over Germany, centred around clubs which were determined to promote the game in their local area. “These women’s football movements often emerged out of handball,” said Ratzeburg. The 'mother' of German women’s football played a significant role in gradually establishing a league in Hamburg. “Of course, I was always being asked if women’s football was really necessary. But we managed to get our way in the end.” Ratzeburg’s commitment and tireless efforts in northern Germany did not go unnoticed in the Frankfurt headquarters of the German Football Association, and it was almost a logical step when, seven years after the lifting of the ban, she was elected to the association’s Football Committee as spokesperson for women’s football.

“I only ever realise how much we’ve achieved over the last 40 years, and my role in that, when I’m asked about it in interviews,” said Ratzeburg today. She faced an uphill battle to change people’s opinions at the time. “I was always trying to explain that you learn gradually from experience. And women have different footballing experiences to men, experiences that only they can understand.“ It was all about making your voice heard, asserting yourself, in what was a men’s world: "I said: ‘We don’t want to play only in nice weather and on grass. And it’s not worth turning up to play only 30 minutes each way.’ Again and again, I would repeat: ‘You men have no idea how women feel when playing football.’ That was my strength!”

The rest of the story is the stuff of legend, as women’s football in Germany went on to scale new heights. With its unique charm and spontaneity, women’s football now thrills hordes of fans and draws millions to their TV screens when matches are shown on the main national channels. On the pitch, the Germany women’s team is the one to beat after winning the last two FIFA Women’s World Cups™ in a row. An astonishing 44,825 spectators made their way to the Frankfurt Arena in spring 2009 to watch the friendly between Silvia Neid’s team and World Cup runners-up Brazil, and in a few months, the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2011™ in Germany is sure to take the passion for the game to new levels.

Tense matches
Ratzeburg has many explanations for this extraordinary development, including a touch of luck. “Things worked out well for us at the really important moments. Excellent attendance figures, widespread interest, thrilling matches and the right results. I’m particularly grateful for that,” she said. Ironically, several of the historic matches which the German team has managed to swing in its favour were so tense that even those with the steadiest of nerves could scarcely withstand it. Yet, subconsciously, this may be the very secret of the team’s success.

Eight years after Bärbel Wohlleben caused a sensation by becoming the first woman to win the German TV channel ARD’s “goal of the month” competition with a precise long-distance shot into the corner of the net in the final match of the German women’s league championship, the time finally came for Germany to launch its own women’s national team. “For me personally, a huge milestone was our first international match against Switzerland in Koblenz in 1982,” said Ratzeburg. Germany ran out 5-1 winners, with a certain Silvia Neid coming on as a substitute at the tender age of 18 to score two goals – turning the occasion into a huge success.

But as we know, things got even better. Not only because the German women’s team won the European Championship seven times in a row and the World Cup twice in a row, but because of the manner in which the team achieved these triumphs. “We were also lucky enough that some of our most important victories came about in spectacular circumstances. That wasn’t good for our nerves, but in terms of public interest, the drama of such matches was worth its weight in gold,” said Ratzeburg, holder of the German Federal Cross of Merit, which she received for her services as a pioneer and symbol of the amazing success of German women’s football.

We want to turn our greatest dream into reality and become world champions for the third time.

Silvia Neid, Germany coach

Germany’s semi-final victory in the 1989 European Championships will live long in the memory. Ratzeburg recounts the events with great enthusiasm: “Our opponents were Italy, and the match took place in Siegen. It was the first time that a women’s international match was being shown live on TV. And what’s more, the match commentator was a woman. Those were both firsts at the time,“ she says. "Then things really took off. The match went into extra time and the television channel had to extend its coverage. Many people turned on their TV sets at that time expecting to see the next programme, but ended up watching our match instead. Suddenly, we had 5.5 million viewers. And they all saw us triumph in the penalty shoot-out. That was something incredible at that time!”

Thanks to the euphoria generated by this experience, 22,000 spectators turned up at Osnabrück Stadium to watch the ensuing European Championship final, where they saw Germany run out 4-1 victors over Norway. Those events saw the game enter wider public consciousness for the first time, and this was topped further still 14 years later in the USA. “The absolute sensation, of course, was our World Cup semi-final victory in 2003 against the USA, in what was perhaps the best women’s football match of all time, before we put the icing on the cake by winning the final against Sweden through Nia Künzer’s golden goal.“ The German team had finally reached the top of the pile – in the rankings, and also in terms of public attention.

Passionate players and coaches
The transition from illegal sport to national passion was complete and the success of German women’s football opened new doors. However, it was passion that had paved the way for this success and captured the hearts of fans young and old alike. Stars like striker Birgit Prinz, who has hit the back of the opponents’ net a total of 14 times in World Cup finals matches and thus holds the World Cup record, or goalkeeper Nadine Angerer, who did not concede a single goal in six matches during the World Cup triumph of 2007, now embody Germany’s supreme tenacity, will to win and determination on the pitch.

For Ratzeburg, another factor has also played a key role in the game’s development: “We had two exceptionally good coaches at the beginning in Gero Bisanz and Tina Theune. Like me, they always concentrated on encouraging deserving players to obtain their coaching badges when their careers were over. That has meant we can continue to implement our philosophy consistently through names such as Silvia Neid, Ulrike Ballweg, Maren Meinert, Bettina Wiegmann and Silke Rottenberg. This has always been one of the keys to our success.”

This will all be music to the ears of Silvia Neid. The German Football Association coach will be subjected to a level of media attention previously unprecedented in women’s football over the next few months. She faces the daunting challenge of meeting the high expectations in the World Cup host country and ensuring ultimate triumph. “We want to turn our greatest dream into reality and become world champions for the third time,” said Neid.

Nobody knows better than Neid how to achieve this. She has been personally involved in all Germany’s European Championship and World Cup victories to date, whether as a player, assistant coach or head coach. As a result, the likeable blonde has the perfect strategy in mind: “We mustn’t allow expectation levels here to drive us crazy. We’re putting enough pressure on ourselves,” adding: “We have to enjoy ourselves!”

There speaks 40 years of experience. If Hannelore Ratzeburg’s huge enthusiasm, spirit and tenacity are anything to go by, Germany will have a lot to look forward to in the summer.