ELBASAN: Emanuela Rusta battled fighting crowds and misogynist headlines for years as she navigated Albania’s soccer scene before becoming the country’s first female international referee.
Rusta was one of the leading figures campaigning for more equality on the football pitches in Albania, where ingrained sexism keeps women on the sidelines.
“You have to fight hard to be accepted,” the 29-year-old told AFP. “We have to break the glass ceiling”
Football has long been a national obsession, but women have only recently begun to gain traction.
The women’s national team first competed in 2011, while the Albanian Football Federation (FSHF) remains predominantly male-dominated with only 2,000 female members compared to 22,000 males.
Albania, plagued by decades of poverty, authoritarian rule and mass migration, has grappled with a difficult path to global integration since the collapse of its communist government in the early 1990s.
Many people have held onto their traditions, including ingrained notions of gender, especially in rural areas where women had fewer opportunities.
But things are beginning to change as women increasingly hold senior positions as judges and university presidents and play important roles in government.
The sports world has slowly evolved, including the soccer scene, where rowdy crowds and the occasional brawl are not uncommon at men’s games.
Despite the hurdles, Rusta remained unfazed by local headlines such as “The sexy referee turning up the heat.”
Refereeing “is not a question of gender but of competence,” said Rusta, who has refereed a dozen internationals in European stadiums and hopes to be selected for the men’s World Cup.
“In order to make good decisions, you have to know the rules of the game perfectly, but you also have to be in excellent physical condition and have a high level of concentration,” she added.
To support her career, Rusta works as a high school physical education teacher in her hometown of Elbasan and works out in the afternoons.
She hopes to become the main referee for the Albanian League 1 derby between the capital’s two rival sides, Tirana and Partizani.
“A referee relieves tension and normalizes the situation,” said sports analyst Andi Vrecani.
The history of women’s football is deeply rooted in the northern Albanian city of Shkodra, where club Vllaznia first made their mark in 2009.
In just a few years, the team has dominated domestically, playing against the best teams in Europe including Chelsea, Real Madrid and PSG in the group stage of the 2022-2023 Champions League.
“The key to the team’s success lies with the girls, who managed to dispel the myth and prejudice that football is only a man’s sport,” said team president Lazer Matija.
The 26-year-old striker Megi Doci was decisive for the recent success.
Originally from a poor village in northern Albania, Doci started playing football against her mother’s wishes and moved to Tirana at the age of 12 to pursue her passion.
Things haven’t been easy, she admits, although she has received impressive accolades, including Best Forward and Most Valuable Player awards.
“I fell, I suffered, I cried, I had to swallow my tears, but every time I chose to get up and fight,” she told the AFP news agency, saying she hopes for Bayern’s women’s team Munich can join Real Madrid in the future.
Doci regularly trains four hours a day with men who are often surprised by their presence on the field.
“It’s challenging, you feel the weight of that mentality that’s still there because they’re not used to seeing a girl play,” she added.
Others have pushed boundaries while balancing the demands of a sporting career with the desire to start a family.
“I never wanted to choose between my career and my personal life, I always wanted to be happy in both,” says Ardiola Raxhimi, 24, mother of a two-year-old boy she had with Muhamet, a former footballer who now runs a hair salon.
FSHF chief Armand Duka said that “women’s football is the priority” for the governing body, which hopes the number of women footballers will skyrocket.
But he conceded that parity is still a long way off.
Female players earn almost half as much as male players, their average salary is only 400 euros per month.
And while there are still many hurdles to overcome, Duka believes the path ahead has taken shape.
“Women’s football was almost taboo a few years ago because it was considered a male sport,” he said. “We won this fight.” -AFP
https://www.thesundaily.my/sport/stand-up-and-fight-albanian-women-footballers-break-taboos-BH10715051 Albanian footballers break taboos