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New East Women

Game changer

How football saved my life as a woman in Russia

I didn’t know that football was a “man’s sport”. In the small city of Kostanai where I lived until I was 10, football meant staying out on the dirt pitch longer than my cousin or brother would. It wasn’t defined by gender. I was out there, with an inexplicable desire to kick the ball around our yard. It stayed with me for a long time.

When I was 12, my family moved from Kazakhstan to Kiev. At my school I was immersed in football for another six years. I went to an American school, where football was offered as an extracurricular activity and taught at a higher level than Ukrainian schools. We had fun training, but we would also go out and watch our boys play — and often they would come and cheer for us. The most important thing that cultivated in me was my personal belief in equality.

After university I got into the fashion industry, and it was impossible to practice team sport. After three years working in such an intense field, I burnt out. Last year, I found myself in Moscow. I was sharing an apartment with a friend, I had quit my high-paying but stressful job, I’d never lived in the city before. I was struggling, but I was independent and I really wanted to recover. I was doing yoga, slowly rebuilding my body, but still felt like something was missing. That’s when I went out searching for women’s amateur football in Moscow. I discovered GirlPower FC and I’m still there to this day.

My first practice was like a breath of fresh air. All the girls were very different: there was a lawyer, a sports journalist, a banker, a stay-at-home mother. It was amazing to see such different women connecting through the sport. There is no prior experience required. You can come for the first time in your life, or after many years of training. Participants are divided into sub-groups within the club according to their level. The girls train two of three times a week and games are scheduled for the weekend. Even I, who never saw football as something extraordinary for women, started to feel special practicing it in this place. I’ve received so much support and inspiration, and it certainly sped up my personal recovery: I’m not just part of a football club — it’s a people’s club, a subculture, a society that accepts and supports me for what I am.

I was raised in a Russian family, but I never lived in Russia, so I only had a very vague idea about how women’s football is actually treated here. Listening to the girls talk, it quickly became clear that female football players are not taken seriously. When our players used to go shopping for kits, they were always asked: “for your son, or for your husband?” Now, not only are there separate sections in stores with women’s football equipment, but GPFC have their own Adidas-sponsored kits. For 2019 GPFC are planning to expand from Moscow to other Russian cities. There are around 1000 women who take part. I am definitely seeing more new faces after the 2018 World Cup. Whether this is an after-effect of the competition and good spirits or pure coincidence is hard to tell. Still, this is a step forward.

Text and image: Yana Davydova
Video: From adidas x GirlPower by Anna Shmitko