A Swedish teenager made headlines recently when she took the Swedish Football Association to task, making them change their rulebook to remove the word han (‘he’) as the default word to describe people involved in the game.

Henrietta Berner, 15, was on a referee course for young people when she noticed that instruction, and instructors, used male pronouns to refer to players, coaching staff and referees.

Taking it to the top

Henrietta took her complaint to the Stockholm Football Assocation, who took it to the national level. Jan Berg, Compliance Officer at the Swedish Football Association, said that similar discussions had very intermittently taken place before.

However, the rulebook which governs the Swedish FA was translated from the FIFA handbook, which states that it uses masculine pronouns to apply to both male and female footballers. The Assocation felt bound to translate it directly, male pronouns and all. For the 2015 edition, the Swedes will go their own way, with the male pronoun replaced by spelaren (‘player’) and domaren (‘referee’).

Bringing football to all

In many different ways, language has a role to play in bringing football to a truly global audience. Henrietta Berner’s step may only affect Sweden at the moment, but there seems little reason why FIFA couldn’t also make their handbook gender-neutral. It would send out a message about the equality of the game and, on a practical level, is hard to imagine that replacing masculine pronouns with ‘the player’ or ‘they/their’ would make the rules any less easy to understand.

The future of football (and Henrietta)

Henrietta may be an anomaly, or she may – if we’re being hopeful/idealistic – point to a different attitude towards football and gender among young people. In either case, after making her mark on Swedish football and striking a blow for equality, Henrietta has given up the game and taken up ballet.

Which, if we’re honest, we did not see coming.

And finally…

  • Over the border in Finland, Henrietta would have had no cause for complaint. The Finnish language uses only general-neutral pronouns and has no grammatical gender, so the word hän is gender-neutral, referring to both ‘she’ and ‘he’. Finnish does, however, favour gender-based adjectives, and uses the suffix –mies (‘man‘) for many professions
  • On the highly tenuous link of females and football, let’s all enjoy Stephanie Roche’s thriker of a goal one more time