Given its status as the national game, women’s football has always enjoyed a somewhat uncomfortable relationship with the British public. Outright hostility may not have been the order of things, but a certain, sneering condescension has followed the female football sorority in Britain in a way that seems markedly unfamiliar to overseas players and fans of the game.
True, there have been points that looked like a watershed – the England team’s progress to the 2009 European Championship final, particularly, looked a real opportunity to kick-start the game’s popularity in the UK – yet somehow, public opinion has never quite swayed in the women’s game’s favour.
Yet might we, in a decade’s time, look back to one day in 2005 as the moment the women’s game sparked truly into life in the national consciousness? July 6th 2005 will forever be the day that the Olympics began its journey back to London. Nobody at that point could possibly have predicted that Great British Women’s Football would demonstrate such breakout popularity that it would attract a crowd in excess of 70,000 to its final group game in the new Wembley stadium, yet speak to many and the story is of the excitement generated by the women’s tournament as a whole and, particularly, Team GB’s remarkable unbeaten Group stage. Many who had written off women’s football as a lowly cousin of the men’s game, suddenly seem open to a new footballing experience.
Let us make one thing clear at the outset – women’s football, for all its successes and its noteworthy achievements of late is not as far advanced as men’s professional football. The gap between the good and the rest is still too wide, the spread of talent too uneven, the infrastructure, grass roots, support and – yes – the action itself is still too nascent to draw friendly comparison, despite the leaps and bounds made both in the UK and globally within the last decade. But why should that be an issue? Take away the core rules of the sport and would we really want women’s and men’s football to be carbon copies of one another? Without wishing to offend anybody across football’s broad spectrum, if the whole of the sport aspired to be the same wouldn’t we just watch endless repeats of Brazil’s 1970 squad, Ajax’s 1995 team or the Barcelona vintage of 2008?
That women’s football suffers in comparison to the men’s code is symptomatic only of our societal bias, not the essence of the sport itself. It is so easy to denigrate the women’s game by labelling it a poor reflection of the elite fare served up in the Premier League and Europe’s other top divisions on a weekly basis, yet to do so misses the point entirely. The women’s game is a different beast; less powerful, perhaps; less pacey, certainly; less skilful – absolutely not.
This is women’s football’s great chance in the UK; a chance that must not be contingent upon success in Friday’s quarter final; a chance that must under no circumstances be allowed to be squandered. The Great British public demonstrated, finally, that there is an appetite for competitive women’s football in the UK played at the highest level. Yes, the 70,000 crowds seen for Tuesday night’s match against Brazil may not be matched after these Olympic games and no, there is no guarantee that the hunger for the international game can be wholly translated into the domestic league, but the raw demonstration of the country’s interest is now there for all to see. The challenge for the wider infrastructure around the game is to ensure an effective framework is put in place to give the game its best chance to do as Team GB have done so far, and capitalise on the chances that come its way.
How best to achieve this? I would contend that many of the initial seeds are already in place. The grass roots functions effectively; football is steadily growing in popularity amongst girls and schools; the limitations pressed upon the game by a relative lack of institutional funding are both unavoidable and, in some ways, part of the innocence and charm which reflects well upon the game. Sure, professionalism and wage pressures drew many top players away to the US in the last decade, but given the collapse of the WPS, the game’s stars have by and large returned to the domestic game. Wage equality may never exist between the men’s and women’s games, but frankly one would hope it never has to – a more appropriate funding mechanism and remuneration methodology might be drawn from an earlier age of the men’s game, with a wage cap of sensible, professional proportions. This, though, is a conversation for another time and a better informed writer.
The most positive action available in the here and now comes from the game’s media presence. If women’s football cannot capitalise on current media sentiment and public interest, it is doomed to failure. A concerted, concentrated effort to lobby major sports broadcasters to invest in a small scale, regular highlights package with a commitment to undertake public engagement activity is imperative. Finally, the game has profile in the UK. In players like Steph Houghton, Kelly Smith, Rachel Yankey and Eni Aluko it has articulate, intelligent, successful ambassadors and – yes, despite the uncomfortable nature of the term – poster girls for the modern footballing age. In coaches like England’s Hope Powell, Arsenal’s Laura Harvey and Lincoln Ladies’ Glen Harris it has passionate, dedicated non-playing staff who continue to raise the standard of play across the game.
Yes, the game is probably a decade behind the US; no, it will never reach the heights or profile enjoyed by the men’s game. These are simple facts and better accepted than raged against. If the women’s game can take its own path, extol its own virtues, win its own battles and charm its own public, the closed-minded masses will become a tiny kernel of disapproval, a chorus that can be drowned out amongst the ground swell of popularity.
Yet a note of caution is worth sounding. For women’s football in the UK, this is an open goal. Missing may not prove catastrophic, but failing to grasp it could still punch a critical hole in the game’s own belief that it can achieve victory. There are many exceptional people within the women’s game, and a great number of individuals who have worked tirelessly to give the sport the chance it now has. If their efforts go unrewarded through lack of effort from those surrounding the sport, it will be an unforgiveable moment and an unthinkable shame.
Top image from http://www.londonprepares.com (thanks!)
Bottom image from http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2012/07/30/article-2181301-1443A0B0000005DC-318_634x369.jpg via Getty Images (Thank you!)