The Women’s World Cup: A Whole New Ball Game

It was by accident that I happened to switch on to Nigeria v Sweden in the women’s World Cup. The matches usually kick off around midnight and there had been no great advance publicity. Also, I had only briefly watched the women’s game before, a number of years ago, when I was in the presence of blokes who were outdoing one another with a series of ancient sexist gags .Frankly, it seemed to me to be more or less a slower version of the men’s game with less physical contact, more a participant than spectator sport.

Early in the Nigeria game something happened which was, to a follower of the men’s game, truly remarkable. A corner was taken and the defenders didn’t grab the shirts of the opposition, the forwards didn’t manhandle the goalkeeper, there was no spitting, obstruction, or blatant cheating. Now as anyone who watches Premier League football will know, such behaviour is perfectly normal, indeed apparently essential. It is a blight on the game. Offences, which anywhere else on the pitch would be sanctioned with a red or yellow card, go unpunished. Referees, The FA, FIFA treat this as an acceptable part of the game. Well, someone hasn’t told the ladies.

The result is astonishing. Women’s football is a different game. There are still fierce challenges but there is room for skill to flourish. It is like the men’s game before it was corrupted by money. It is, in many ways, played with a Corinthian spirit that seemed to have long vanished. Many followers of tennis prefer the women’s game, disliking the often relentless baseline slogging of the men. The guile and finesse of the ladies game give it something a little different. Perhaps women’s football can find a similar place.

I did of course wonder why the women seemed happy to adhere to the rules. I put this to an amateur woman footballer of my acquaintance. Why are women so much less likely to dive, cheat, feign injury? Are they playing under different rules perhaps? Or maybe the administrators will simply not tolerate it? Her response was simple.”We’d be embarrassed”. Well, of course they would, who wouldn’t? Actually, the majority of male professional footballers.

So, why are the indulged, lavishly rewarded, averagely talented journeymen of the Premier League so utterly shameless? Why did the recent abject, spineless surrender of England’s under 21 men cause them no embarrassment. No doubt much of it is to do with money. When poor Laura Bassett scored that freakish own goal that put the England women, undeservedly, out of the world cup she was subjected to vicious abuse on social media. Someone suggested she should go and kill herself. The underperforming under 21s suffered similar comments yet I suspect Laura was much more hurt. You see, Laura lives in the real world. Winning the world cup meant something that money can’t buy. For the men, they simply returned to the parallel world of the professional male footballer where they have enough money to stick in their ears and drown out reality.

However, surely that’s not the whole story. Just maybe gender has a part in this. The England women’s coach believes that this world cup will be a catalyst for the women’s game. I think he may be right. I suspect that somewhere in Ireland there are ten year old girls, encouraged by proud dads, kicking a football around, who will in ten years time be earning fortunes playing football. Will money change them? Of course it will. Not in the same way, I believe. There will never be the same tribalism in the women’s game. The followers of the Manchester Belles will not be attacking the fans of Everton ladies. At heart, though, the future women professionals will, I hope and believe, retain a cynicism about football that is essentially female. They will not see their sport as a noble occupation that justifiably earns them millions but as a fundamentally ludicrous way to earn a living.

By Andy Crooks

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