Changing the game: Than Than Htwe

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Myanmar women’s national football team captain Than Than Htwe has been a key figure in the game for more than a decade. Ahead of her retirement, the veteran midfielder reflects on her long career and the future of women’s football in Myanmar. Words by Jens Raitanen. Photos by Angel Ko Ko.

While men’s football continues to dominate the scene in Myanmar, women’s football is slowly on the rise, mostly thanks to one determined player. Ever since she was a child, all Than Than Htwe ever wanted to do was play football. Despite objections from her parents she embraced her love for the beautiful game and pursued her dream of making football her profession.

“My parents didn’t support me playing football,” she said. “But that didn’t stop me from playing when I was growing up. Football is my life. It is everything to me. If there was no football then my life would be meaningless—I would be meaningless.”

A football pitch is pure happiness for Than Than Htwe, a place where any sadness in her life disappears. But women footballers in Myanmar tackle bigger challenges off the field. Unlike their male counterparts, Myanmar’s female players still face a lack of acceptance in their communities. Many people still believe women should embark on more traditional roles in their life, rather than pursue sport as a career.

Despite the opposition from her own family, Than Than Htwe, who grew up in Ayeyarwady Region, stuck with football and made her dream come true when she was selected for the Myanmar Women’s National Football team for the 2001 Southeast Asian Games in Malaysia.

Since then, the 32-year-old midfielder and team captain, who will retire this year, has won more than 60 caps for her country and scored more than 10 goals. She has also won several team medals, including two golds at the Asian Football Federation Women’s Championship in 2004 and 2007.

Her achievements have made her one of the most popular female football players in Myanmar, and her recognition has helped attract support for the women’s national team at home.

“I have always given my everything to the national team and I am very proud to have represented my country,” she said. “It’s an honour every time I put on the national team shirt.”

The team is a “second family,” she said, with players and coaches spending the majority of their time together. Since making her debut 17 years ago, playing for the national team has been her life. Than Than Htwe and her teammates train five days a week at the Thuwanna Stadium training complex, where they also live together in shared accommodation.

The training camp runs across the entire year and on top of her national team duties she also plays club football for Zwekapin United on a weekly basis in the KBZ Bank Women’s Football League, which consists of eight teams. The league is in its second season having been launched in December 2016. The introduction of the league is a big step forward in the development of women’s football in Myanmar. Than Than Htwe feels this will give the new generation of female players a greater chance of developing both individually and collectively.

“It has given us the opportunity to play more matches and this is aiding the growth of women’s football in Myanmar,” she said. “This is particularly important for the younger generation of players coming through the system because they need to be playing as many competitive matches as possible in order to reach their potential.”

Before the league, a team of female players would train together weekly and play international games from time to time. Youth development and the quality of the squad was at a lower standard back then, said Than Than Htwe. “But now we are seeing good progress in the women’s game. Our national team has improved over the past few years and we have earned a good reputation in Southeast Asia and gained the support of the fans by being successful on the field.”

Playing more friendly matches, particularly against teams that are more experienced and skilled, is “essential for the development of our players,” added Than Than Htwe.

The captain is hopeful about the future of women’s football in Myanmar having witnessed and experienced the latest developments. She believes the right steps are being taken in the women’s game and she sees plenty of potential in the young players coming through the national youth teams.

For now, though, her attention has fully turned to the upcoming Asian Football Federation Women’s Championship in Indonesia (June 30–July 13), where her team has been drawn in Group B along with Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore, and hosts Indonesia.

“Our target is to be champions and I believe we are more than capable of winning gold,” said Than Than Htwe.

And although she will be playing her final matches for the national team before hanging up her boots, she has plans to coach at club level.

“I want to stay in football, I cannot simply walk away from it all,” she said. “My ultimate dream is to become the head coach of Myanmar’s women’s national team. I hope I will get a chance to fulfil that dream one day.”

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