BERLIN (Reuters) - Women's football in Germany has come a long way since 1970 when the country's federation, the DFB, reluctantly lifted a ban on women playing the game.
Germany's women have now won successive World Cup titles, including last month's 2-0 victory in the final over Brazil in Shanghai, and have been feted as national heroines after not letting in a single goal.
More than nine million television viewers -- an impressive 55 percent market share -- watched the final, making it one of the most-watched broadcasts of the year in Germany. Tens of thousands of cheering fans turned out to welcome home the team.
Chancellor Angela Merkel likes to point out that the women's team have been more successful than the men's in recent years.
It is not only in Germany that women's football has gained in popularity. The game has long been a big draw for girls and women in the United States, which won the World Cup in 1991 and 1999, and some U.S. players have become celebrities.
In Scandinavia, women's football has long enjoyed broad support. Norway won the 1995 World Cup. Sweden and Denmark also qualified for the 2007 World Cup finals.
In Brazil, a women's league will be launched on October 25.
In other places, such as Iran, there are restrictions placed on women who play football. Men are not allowed to watch and the women must follow the Islamic dress code. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution women were banned from men's matches.
The situation was depicted in director Jafar Panahi's comedy "Offside", in which Iranian women try to sneak into a stadium disguised as men. The film was a popular entry at the Berlin Film Festival in 2006.
In 1955 Germany, when a group of women tried to form a national league, the DFB stopped them, citing morality and health grounds.
"The attractiveness of women, their bodies, and souls will suffer irreparable damage and the public display of their bodies will offend morality and decency," it said at the time.
The federation scrapped the ban after it came under attack from the women's rights movement but initially ruled that women should play with a lighter ball and limited the length of their games to 60 minutes rather than 90. Those vestiges of unequal treatment have since been discarded.
Goalkeeper Nadine Angerer, one of Germany's best players at the World Cup with six clean sheets, said in an interview with Reuters that she was sometimes surprised by how far women's soccer had advanced in Germany in recent years.
"Women's soccer has gone through an unbelievable development in recent years and that will continue, I am sure," said Angerer, who epitomises that sudden growth in popularity.
She went from being an unknown second-team keeper to a national celebrity after stepping in for injured team mate, Silke Rottenberg. Angerer, 28, has appeared on television talks shows and magazine covers since then.
Jens Lehmann, her counterpart in the men's team, said Angerer's performance was something men could only dream about.
"That's an accomplishment that will probably never be topped," said Lehmann in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper.
Franz Beckenbauer, organiser of the 2006 men's World Cup in Germany, said he hoped the country would win the right to stage the 2011 women's World Cup when FIFA pick the hosts on October 30.
"It would be a well-earned reward for the fantastic accomplishments of our women's team," Beckenbauer said in an interview on the DFB Web site (www.dfb.de) recently.
The DFB is now proud of its women's teams and says that more than 656,000 women participate in organised soccer.
Nevertheless, the women's game struggles at club level. Wages are low and few players can manage without other jobs.
"Most of the women players have to work other jobs and play only part-time," said Angerer, who plays for Turbine Potsdam.
Clubs in the 12-team women's Bundesliga have low revenues and get little support from fans and corporate sponsors.
League leaders FCC Frankfurt averaged 1,000 spectators per home game, sporting director Siegfried Dietrich told Reuters. By contrast, Bayern Munich who lead the men's Bundesliga average 69,000 spectators per home match.
Despite the problems, German women are optimistic about the future. The game is booming among younger players and there are now 6,292 girls' teams registered with the DFB, almost triple the 2,148 in 1996, federation spokesman Niels Barnhofer said.