First Published July 2nd 2019 on richardopenshaw.org.uk
Those who know me will know that I’ve followed women’s football for some time, particularly international football. I liked the Lionesses before they were cool. England’s run to a third consecutive major tournament semi-final, and sadly another defeat, has been brilliant. Phil Neville and his squad have talked of only being interested in winning, in breaking through that semi-final barrier and I’m sure they’ll be disappointed. However, in the USA they came up against a team who are as close to unbeatable as I’ve seen in international football. For me, this is still progress from four years ago and it’s fair to say that, at home at least, the game has never received more attention.
Since I watched England in the 2005 European Championships, the game has progressed immeasurably. England had some real quality in those days with players like Kelly Smith and Faye White, and great youngsters such as Eni Aluko and Karen Carney, who has played at this World Cup. Today’s Lionesses have that sort of quality in abundance and there’s real depth in this squad.
Capitalising On Success
It is inevitable that as the game has become more accessible to young girls at grass roots level, the quality has improved. When I was a child I remember playing against one or two primary school teams that included a girl. That was hugely unusual and to hear girls talking about football, never mind playing it, was rare enough to be notable. From what I see, today’s schoolchildren don’t think twice about it.
As increased participation has increased the quality, so that increased quality – and the attention that comes with it – has increased participation and it is incumbent on those at the top – players, coaches, clubs – to continue to inspire young girls (and indeed boys) to play football. For England, regularly reaching the latter stages of major tournaments will achieve that. Imagine the effect winning one would have.
I can’t shake a nagging feeling though, that England and the FA didn’t fully capitalise on the performance in 2015. The game has moved on at domestic level for sure, and participation continues to rise but I suspect that trend would have been similar regardless of the performance in Canada. I very much hope that this World Cup with an excellent performance again, and it’s better coverage – helped by the European location giving us games at times that suit TV audiences – will see a sharper change in trajectory. In Scotland too, let’s hope that a first appearance at the Women’s World Cup Finals will see more participation among girls at grass roots level.
Embracing The Women’s Game
Phil Neville has been quick to acknowledge his predecessors contribution to the success of the current squad. He’s absolutely right to do so but deserves a lot of credit himself. Hope Powell was England’s first full-time head coach and also the first woman to take on the role. Over fifteen years, she was a fantastic ambassador for the women’s game and oversaw continual improvement that was the foundation for the success we are seeing today.
Mark Sampson succeeded Powell in 2013 and under his stewardship England continued to progress, including that 3rd place finish in Canada in 2015, beating the hosts as well as traditional powerhouses Norway and Germany while extremely unfortunate to lose to the holders at the time, Japan, in the semi-final. Victory over Germany in the 3rd place play-off – their first in 21 attempts – felt significant. That was followed up by another semi-final in the European Championships two years later and the future for both England and Sampson looked bright. However, later that year Sampson’s tenure ended in unsavoury circumstances. The manner of his departure, coupled by the success his Lionesses had enjoyed, led to an unprecedented level of interest in the appointment of his successor.
I admit to having my concerns when Phil Neville was appointed. He had very little coaching experience and I was hopeful that England might return to a female coach, but my main reservation was over his lack of background in the women’s game. Powell had made 66 appearances for the national team while Sampson had managed Bristol Academy in the Women’s Premier League.
Neville, of course, had vast playing experience at the highest level of men’s football but there was a concern that he might have seen the job as an easy route into coaching. Those reservations have so far proved unfounded. I think Neville has taken this England squad to another level, adding an incredible mentality to an already talented group of players. I have been pleasantly surprised and absolutely delighted by the way he has embraced women’s football. Even if Neville does view managing the Lionesses as a stepping stone to a more lucrative position in the men’s game, he is not going to short change the women’s game in the process.
No women’s tournament would be complete without the usual negative comments about the quality of the game. Some of what I have seen and heard – including from people who really should know better – has been extremely disappointing. I never really understand the desire to constantly compare men’s and women’s sports so directly. Obviously, the physicality of he men’s game will be greater and I wonder what we would make of the football offered up by men if they had to endure the lack of support – and in some parts of the world active obstruction – that the women’s game has. The FA in England effectively banned women’s football for the best part of 50 years in the middle of the last century and Argentina’s struggles in the run up to this competition have been well documented. Even in the USA where women’s football is more popular, more successful and more profitable than men’s, the national team are fighting to get the same levels of support that their male counterparts enjoy.
I have long been of the view that quality, or perceived quality, of a sport is not the most important factor in it’s value as a spectacle. Once a sport is being played above a level that most of us could hope to play at, the pleasure comes from the competitiveness of the competition, regardless of weather it is the English Premier League, the Highland League in Scotland or the Women’s World Cup. This tournament has seen some dramatic games, excellent team and individual performances and incredible skill levels. Very few matches have been dull to watch.
Wimbledon starts this week and the different attitude in tennis is striking. The men’s and women’s tours are equally respected and often appear together. There are still issues of inequality and there are always exceptions but women’s tennis hasn’t really, in my memory at least, been considered some kind of inferior sport in the way women’s footfall has. Like football, men’s tennis is more powerful than women’s certainly. Indeed there have been periods over the years where men’s tennis – especially on grass – has been so dominated by the power of the serve that conventional wisdom has viewed the women’s game as more entertaining and watchable due to the skill and invention on show. The same can be said of athletics. I’ve never heard anyone question why the BBC are covering women’s events at the Olympics or suggest that the women’s 100 metres isn’t worth watching as it’s a second slower than the men’s. People don’t watch women’s tennis or athletics expecting to see exactly the same thing they would with men, they see them as elite sports in their own right, so why should football be any different?
Sadly, I think there can be only one reason why men (always men of course) decry women’s football, and it’s not really the quality or entertainment on show. It’s simply a belief that football is not for women. It’s a misogynistic attitude that should be consigned to the dustbin of history alongside the FA’s ban.
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