Moscow (AFP) – The sniggering kids kept pointing and staring at Margarita Chernomyrdina when she was small because she played football with the boys.
She was the first girl brave enough to try and make the junior league.
Now rapt crowds watch the 22-year-old lead the women’s national team in its quest to win acceptance and respect in Vladimir Putin’s socially conservative Russia.
The technically-gifted midfielder with the firm gaze and soft smile knows the men’s World Cup kicking off in Moscow in a month could work miracles for the Russian women’s game.
“I think I gave women’s football a certain push,” Chernomyrdina says after a spirited practice with her domestic side Chertanovo.
“Girls saw that they could play football, that it was allowed, that nothing was banned, and that parents should not be afraid,” she says.
“Of course I think the World Cup will only help.”
– Soviet ban –
Chernomyrdina has spent her life breaking taboos set in the Soviet era and cemented by modern Russia’s rigid — some would say regressive — view of women’s role in the world.
The Communist Party brushed aside its stated equality goal and banned women’s football outright in 1972 because it was a “men’s sport”.
A brief revival in former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberal perestroika era stalled under the weight of catastrophic economic woes.
And Putin’s Russia has had a hard time embracing the progress made by women in other parts of the world some generations ago.
Many aspiring girl footballers still have to brace themselves against cultural stereotypes if they want to play their chosen sport.
That is why 17-year-old Olga Belousova giggles shyly and looks away when discussing how others react to her devotion to the beautiful game.
“Some of my friends say it’s completely normal and others say no, this is not feminine,” the national junior team regular says.
“I tell people that I like it, that I don’t care what the others say. The most important thing is that I like it and this is mine.”
Sports historians have spun various theories about why women failed to make an impact on Russian pitches while the sport blossomed in places such as Germany and the United States.
One popular legend says that great goalkeepers such as Lev Yashin and Rinat Dasayev were associated in Soviet folklore with defenders of the former superpower’s sovereignty.
This confluence of masculinity and patriotism made football into a tool of political propaganda and left no room for women in the game.