Bless ’em, didn’t they do well?

As the recent World Cup showed, women's football has a long way to go to match the men's game. The patronising coverage won't help.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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World Cups used to be rare and magical events. Now it seems every Mickey Mouse minority sport wants its own World Cup. This summer we’ve even had three World Cup tournaments running at the same time – rugby union, Twenty20 cricket and women’s football (four if you count the Gay Football World Cup which has just finished in Argentina).

Admittedly, these tournaments bear some of the hallmarks of the real thing. For instance, regardless of the sport, England always reach the last eight and then crash out (admittedly, I am writing this article four days before our rugby quarter-final clash with the Aussies but I suspect it will end in English tears). However, although English underachievement is common to all these wannabe World Cups, you only have to scratch the surface to see that these are imposter tournaments.

Take cricket’s inaugural Twenty20 World Cup. Admittedly, the event has been a hailed as a resounding success. Unlike the one-day cricket World Cup held earlier this year, the Twenty20 tournament was short and sweet and, for once, the Aussies didn’t run away with it. The only snag is that Twenty20 isn’t really cricket. Yes, I know it’s popular, but so too were public executions – that didn’t make them right.

The Rugby World Cup has the PR trappings of a proper World Cup, such as pubs and bars decorated in rugby-related paraphernalia. But there are also glaring signs that this is a sham tournament. For a start, most of the world isn’t represented so, while there’s a decent turnout from white settler colonies and Pacific islands, the absence of Brazil and Germany really gives the game away. There are also some obvious ‘ringer’ nations, like Georgia, Romania, Portugal and Japan, who are obviously there just to make up the numbers.

Another big missing ingredient is the World Cup fever. There ain’t any. I was in one rugbyfied pub which was showing the England v Tonga game last Friday. Were any of the punters watching the match? Not a chance. Well, maybe a couple of blokes had one eye on the screen but everyone else opted to sit outside and smoke. I suspect that if England were doing well then there might be a brief resurgence of rugby fever but that would only show that most people are more interested in the shared national experience than the rugby tournament.

And that leads me to the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Again, there were some similarities with the real thing. The rules were the same as the men’s game and there were some classic World Cup ingredients such as heroic English failure, Brazilian flair, and ruthless German efficiency. But that’s where any parallels with the proper tournament end. The most obvious difference was the quality of the football – or rather the lack of it. FIFA president Sepp Blatter said last week that ‘women’s football has now reached a very good quality’. Perhaps he’s trying to atone for his inflammatory suggestion that women’s football might be more marketable if the players wore tighter shorts. However, even the highlights couldn’t disguise the fact that women’s football is still piss poor. This was evident from the very first match of the tournament in which Germany beat Argentina 11-0.

The most notable thing about the curtain raiser was the comical ineptitude of Vanina Correa, the Argentine goalkeeper who spilled two crosses into her own net. But the hapless Correa wasn’t the only one to commit slapstick goalkeeping hari-kiri. With the exception of Germany’s Nadine Angerer, most of the keepers were dodgy. In fact, the dismal standard of goalkeeping has been the major talking point of the tournament. Some commentators have even been suggesting that, as female keepers tend to be shorter than the men, the goals should be made smaller. Rachel Brown, the England goalkeeper, has said that the height difference is an issue. ‘There’s a lot more goal for us to cover, when you consider the average stature of women goalkeepers compared to men’, admitted Brown.

However, while the debate has focused on height, many of the goalkeeping bloopers were down to sheer incompetence. When the ball looped over Rachel Brown for Kristine Lilly to score the USA’s third goal in the quarter-final, the problem wasn’t her height but her misjudgement of the bounce. Similarly, Germany’s opening goal in the final was not down to the Brazilian keeper’s lack of inches but the fact that she dived over the ball. Reducing the size of the goals isn’t going to correct the substandard quality of the goalkeeping. In all aspects of the game – handling, agility, command of the penalty area and distribution – the goalkeepers were found wanting.

None of this, of course, is due to physiological differences between the sexes but to the fact that the women’s game is still largely amateur. Women’s football might be the biggest female participation sport in Britain but few people would pay to watch it. And this is where I take issue with the media coverage of the Women’s World Cup. Granted, it’s been tucked away in a graveyard late-night slot on BBC2 and has a second-string commentary team, but does an amateur low-quality sport deserve even this level TV exposure? I think the patronage that women’s football enjoys is, well, patronising.

Let me explain. The argument for televising women’s football is essentially a positive discrimination one. The women’s game is still developing and therefore needs a promotional helping hand. But I fail to see how giving the women’s game a condescending pat on the back and overlooking its glaring deficiencies is going to advance it. Take, for example, the reaction to Hope Powell’s team’s quarter-final exit. ‘The team has done England proud, they are a great bunch of players and a pleasure to be around’, wrote BBC sports presenter Jake Humphrey. ‘The FA and the country should be proud and I hope they get the credit they deserve.’

Er, proud of what exactly? England reached the quarter-finals, which was further than they’d progressed before, but they managed only one victory en route and that was against a woeful Argentina team. Had that been the men’s team they would have been mercilessly lampooned in the media. But saying ‘well done’, as a teacher might do to the fat kid who came last in the egg and spoon race because he tried his best, is, as I said, just patronising.

I reckon if female footballers want to be taken as seriously as their male counterparts, they should be prepared to be pilloried in the same way when they screw up. That means stringing up effigies outside pubs, giving the coach the turnip treatment, and booing our World Cup flops when they turn out for their club teams (which won’t be difficult as they all play for Arsenal). Cruel as it sounds, I think that putting Hope Powell and her team in the stocks and pelting them with rotting fruit and veg would be a giant step forward for women’s football.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. He is speaking at the session Are we a nation of sporting losers? at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.

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