Forward to a level playing field

Observations on woman

To call Luciano Gaucci, president of the Italian Serie A football club Perugia, an eccentric would be an understatement. In a game where reading the Guardian singles you out as an oddball, Gaucci stands head and shoulders above everybody else in the weirdness stakes. Over the past 18 months he has been responsible for signing Saadi Gaddafi, son of the sometime philosopher and full-time Libyan dictator, Colonel Gaddafi; sacking a South Korean player for having the temerity to score against the Italian national team; and hiring the disgraced drug-cheat Ben Johnson to teach his players how to sprint. But he is now at the centre of an audacious move that could change the face of football. He is planning to make Perugia the first professional men's club to sign a female footballer.

Since whispers surfaced that Perugia was scouting out suitable female players, speculation has been rife as to their identities. A spokesperson confirms the club is in negotiations with a number of north European players, including the Swedish strikers Hanna Ljungberg, top scorer last year in the Swedish women's league, and Victoria Svensson, captain of the national team. "They [Perugia] have been in contact with us and we have said it is OK to speak to Victoria," said Per Darnell, chairman of Svensson's team, Djurgardens. Although Gaucci has assured him that she will be given plenty of first team starts, and not just used as a bench warmer, Darnell is still unclear why Perugia want to sign a female player in the first place. "I was trying to figure it out," he confessed. "But their English wasn't too good."

In Italy, given Gaucci's reputation, most people have dismissed the move as a publicity stunt designed to raise the profile of his small football club. But this is not the first time Gaucci has struck a blow for gender equality. In 1999, when he was chairman of Viterbese, a fourth division club, he appointed the top female footballer Carolina Morace to manage the team. She was sacked after eight games.

This latest stunt has not made him very popular with the football authorities. Whereas most European nations, including the UK, banned mixed-gender football for the over-12s more than two decades ago, the Italian football federation, the FIGC, did not. On hearing of Gaucci's plan, the FIGC removed the licence of a female footballer playing for an amateur men's team.

Whatever the truth about Gaucci's motives, the prospect of women playing professional football with men will force the power-brokers within football, and other sports, to answer a fundamental question: why are top sportswomen still barred from competing with men, when gender discrimination is not tolerated in other occupations? The answer, according to Bev Ward, spokesperson for women's football at the English FA, is that women just can't compete physically with men. "There are quite a few women skilful enough to compete," she said. "But they are not strong enough. When puberty comes, women can never be as strong as men."

On 8 February, Perugia play the toughest game of their season, against the European champions, A C Milan. Gaucci will be watching from somewhere high up in the 86,000-capacity Stadio San Siro. Against one of the top teams in world football, there will probably never be a better time, or place, for a Swedish striker to make her debut and make history.