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Offside, 23 June

Women's Euro 2005 was like park football, but without the fat blokes.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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A few years ago I ventured the opinion in this column that women’s football is crap. In the light of the Women’s Euro 2005 tournament, have I revised my views? No, it’s still total pants (and hideous big pants at that).

There has been a radical shift in attitudes to women’s football. After the First World War, when women’s football was attracting relatively large crowds, the Football Association banned female teams from Football League grounds, declaring that ‘the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged’. Today, women’s matches generally attract pitiful numbers of spectators, and yet the women’s game is being vigorously promoted by both the football authorities and the media.

Women’s Euro 2005, despite England’s early exit, has been hailed as a resounding success. Seventy thousand spectators saw England’s three-group stage games and over three million TV viewers watched the BBC’s live coverage of England’s 1-0 defeat to Sweden. Although Hope Powell’s team were eliminated at the group stage they were given a reception at the House of Commons as befits the nation’s latest heroic sporting failures. FA chief Brian Barwick is now keen for terrestrial broadcasters to televise England’s World Cup 2007 qualifying campaign.

But is it true that the tournament really ‘caught the imagination of the public’, as Barwick suggests? True, there was a fair degree of media hype but there was no evidence of the football fever that episodically grips the nation during major football tournaments. There were no union flags fluttering from car windows or pubs crammed with punters cheering on our girls. Although the TV audiences were relatively high for women’s football matches, considerably more TV viewers (5.6million) watched the British women’s curling team win Olympic gold in 2002.

I’d imagine that many people tuned in to watch the England ladies out of curiosity. After all, it was on terrestrial TV and there was bugger all else on. Whether many of those TV viewers would be willing to pay to watch women’s league football is another matter. Novelty value is not a particularly firm foundation for sustaining public interest in the women’s game.

While Brian Barwick thinks that terrestrial TV coverage is the key to promoting the women’s game, UEFA president Lennart Johansson has suggested that women should use their looks to sell the game. ‘There are so many companies who could make use of the fact that if you see a girl playing on the ground, sweaty, with the rainy weather and coming out the dressing room, lovely looking, that would sell’, said Johansson.

His comments echo those of FIFA chief Sepp Blatter, who has suggested that women should play in tighter shorts, and have drawn a predictably angry response from within the women’s game. ‘I get really fed up of this sort of thing’, said Swedish international Frida Ostberg. ‘In a superficial world it is what is on the surface that sells, but we should be interesting for what we do on the pitch.’ Her sentiments were shared by England winger Sue Smith. ‘People will be upset because you want people to watch us for football reasons not aesthetic reasons’, said Smith.

Johansson has been pilloried as a dirty old man with a penchant for sweaty women, but he is not the only one who thinks that the development of the women’s game is being held back because of its public image. The football authorities are also keen to dispel the popular perception that women’s football is a game played by hairy pipe-smoking lesbians. This summer the FA is launching a promotional campaign in schools and cinemas under the slogan ‘A more beautiful game’, which aims to encourage more young girls to play the game. Photogenic players like Katie Chapman and Rachel Yankey have been deliberately used to promote the women’s game.

Whether it is blatantly sexist or not, no amount of clever marketing can overcome the fundamental problem that the product itself is still pretty unpalatable. We are constantly told that what female footballers lack in physical strength, they more than make up for in skill and technique. Anyone who watched the Women’s Euro 2005 tournament will have seen for themselves that this is a load of nonsense. Apart from occasional flashes of quality, most games were littered with misplaced passes, poor ball control, goalkeeping gaffes, and defensive howlers. It was like watching park football but without the fat blokes or the violence.

Women footballers want to be judged on their own merits and I’ve got no problem with that. The irony is that the quality of the women’s game simply does not merit the exalted media profile it currently enjoys. Pretending that women’s football is good when it is manifestly rubbish isn’t striking a blow for women’s equality; it’s just plain patronising. Football is not ‘unsuitable for females’ as the FA used to think, but women’s football is still unsuitable as a form of public entertainment.

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Topics Politics

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