Offside, 16 November

The football authorities' interest in women's football is driven less by egalitarian concerns than by their desire to outlaw aggressive play.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Women’s football is rubbish.

There, I’ve said it. I know it’s not the correct opinion to voice these days and I fully expect a sack-load of hate mail from irate feminists. But it happens to be true.

I recently watched a women’s international between England and Holland which was shown live on Sky Sports. I’d seen highlights of matches from the women’s football tournament at the Sydney Olympics, but this was the first time I’d sat through an entire 90-minute game. And after a dire 0-0 draw with barely a shot on goal, it is likely to be the last time, too (unless Anna Kournikova switches sports).

I have read that the women’s game is the fastest-growing sport in Britain and that what female players lack in physical power they more than make up for in technical skill. Technical skill my arse. There were a few neat touches but just as many elementary mistakes. Overall I’d say the technical standard was sub-Vauxhall Conference – and they played, dare I say it, like a bunch of girls.

I’m not arguing, as the Football Association (FA) did 50 years ago, that ‘the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged’. There is no biological law that prevents women from playing football. Indeed, England’s Kelly Smith, who plays professionally in the USA, did look a class above the mostly amateur players around her. Her technique, physical strength and superior fitness demonstrate that, with professional coaching, female players are capable of reaching a much higher standard. However, unless standards are raised in Britain, women’s football will remain quite unsuitable for public consumption.

Given that only 5000 spectators turned up to watch England play Holland you wonder why Sky Sports televised the match on its prime-time Sunday afternoon timeslot. The answer lies not in popular demand for women’s football – the women’s Premier League attracts tiny crowds – but in its significance to the football authorities.

‘The future of football is feminine’, FIFA president Sepp Blatter famously declared in 1999. But he didn’t just mean that more women should play football – he meant that the culture of men’s football should be feminised. FIFA sees female players as role models for the way all footballers should conduct themselves. Over the past decade FIFA has conducted a relentless drive to outlaw aggressive play to such an extent that football is fast becoming a non-contact sport. Moreover, feminisation has become a useful proxy cause through which FIFA can attack the ‘greed’ of the modern male professional.

At a 1999 conference FIFA delegate Keith Cooper hailed women footballers as ‘ambassadors for the sport’ because they ‘do not necessarily have dollar signs in mind’, praising the participants in the 1999 women’s World Cup for being ‘accessible, cooperative, decent, and not solely interested in what they might get out of it for themselves in the long run’. By contrast, the ‘problem with male professional football is that it has become all about agents, clubs going to the stock market, and large amounts of money’ (1).

FIFA’s promotion of women’s football is not motivated by an egalitarian impulse but by a Corinthian disdain for commercialisation of sport. The irony is that, from what I’ve seen of the women’s game in Britain, it is held back by the very thing that FIFA finds so attractive: its amateurism.

(1) The future of football ‘lies with women’, Guardian, 2 December 1999

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