First and foremost, I have to say if you’ve ever responded to a social media post about women’s football with the word “kitchen” this article isn’t for you. Or if you’ve ever taken the time out of your busy schedule to reply, “no one cares,” again, I thank you for the click but this article will do little to change your already made up mind.
For those who’ve caught a bit of women’s football on the tv, or even been down to a local ground to see a match and don’t think it’s up to scratch, please do stick around.
Let it grow
Yes, it’s true that if you were to compare WSL – the highest tier of women’s football in England – with the Premier League (a very ley version of the male equivalent of WSL), there would be a disparity. The quality is lower than the men’s game but that’s not to say it’s a league or sport that lacks quality, rather it lacks a suitable gestation period.
It’s football, it’s what we love, it’s the nation's favourite hobby, it’s loved in England, in Italy, in France, Germany, across Africa, in Asia, it’s gobbled up by South Americans and hey, even by their northern cousins these days. It’s loved by men, by women, by young and by old, by those who play and those who simply watch. Kicking a football around a pitch, with the goal of a goal; it’s universal. It brings people together and binds them by a common language.
Even for the novices, it’s attainable. It’s near impossible to walk past any empty drinks bottle on the pavement and not kick it, maybe just once, maybe you go off on a dribble before thumping it at a street sign and recklessly lofting your arms high, dancing a little as if you’ve just scored the stoppage-time winner in the cup final.
It’s irresistible, the simple act of kicking a thing towards another thing, so it’s only natural that we’d gravitate towards a polished version of, kick the thing.
And we have gravitated to it, en masse, the numbers pulled in for broadcasts of El Clásico or the World Cup final are mind-boggling but even the figures for any rainy Wednesday night fixture at the Britannia. The world loves little more than watching two groups of men kick a ball around a rectangle of grass, so where is the appeal for watching a similar spectacle with a few more ponytails on the pitch? What is it about those with double-X chromosomes taking part in the age-old tradition, get the round thing in the netted thing that puts so many off?
FIFA and the Catalans
Why would people who enjoy watching men’s football rather spend their time watching eSports than women’s football? I have sat next to friends when they’ve played FIFA and I’ve grown tired before long, I don’t want to watch Jamie pass around the Arsenal defence before stroking once past Petr Čech with Harry Kane. Nor do I want to watch Adam fearlessly take Alex Smithies out of his goal and dribble the full length of the pitch before skiing a shot with the pixilated goalie. It’s a video game, I want to play.
However, this isn’t a condemnation of those who do enjoy watching eSports, nor one of those who enjoy cricket or can get their head around the rules for rugby union, each to their own and all that. This is a simple question of where the appeal dissipates to when Barcelona men – Messi, Suarez, Pique et all – are replaced by Barcelona women? What of Lieke Martens, Andressa Alves and Mapi Leon? They wear the Barça colours, they carry the badge on their chests, they play sumptuous football, where are Barcelona’s millions of fans and why do they depart when it comes down to Barça Femení?
To be a football fan, to avidly watch men’s football but then to opt to watch people play FIFA instead of just watching women play doesn’t make sense to me. I’ve said that women’s football is a way behind men’s and maybe it should be explained that in England, women’s football was banned by the FA until the 1970s. The reasons for the ban are complicated and not worth unpacking in this article but it remains a simple fact that from 1921 to July 1971 there was a ban in place suffocating women’s football in this country. The evolution of women’s football has been slow across the globe, unnecessary and restrictive rules in place for the early World Cups and European Championships, whether inadequate half-length, different sized balls or just a bizarre format.
Professionalism is new to the sport, it’s not widespread across leagues but rather occurs in small pockets causing imbalances as those with the means attempt to keep up with their peers, those without often forced to languish. So maybe you’ll turn on the tv or find yourself at a ground watching the equivalent of Real Madrid versus Accrington Stanley, or maybe you’ll see two Stanleys.
Women’s sport and an overused diatribe
The argument often used is that women’s football isn’t very good and so it can’t expect to draw a crowd but, just like men’s football, it needs time and money to grow, leaving us with our own chicken vs. egg problem. If you want it to get better and become sustainable you have to support it, just like you did for men’s football. The only difference being that men’s football has always been at the top of its own game, but today we rank the relative infantile women’s game against the fully-grown men’s instead of letting it stand for itself.
There is a yawn heard of just felt when we talk about women’s sports, the yawn of a bored man who is more than happy to tell you that no woman can ever run faster than a man, that women aren’t as strong. Physiology, dear, it’s simple.
Maybe, Sarah Sjöström’s 24.43 second 50m butterfly is a fair way slower than Rafael Muñoz’ world record 22.43 in the same event but both remain two of the fastest humans through water, far faster than any other man or woman on the street. Sure, Anita Włodarczyk’s world record hammer throw is just 82.98m compared with Yuriy Sedykh’s 86.74m but again, for those who say women’s sports are irrelevant, it’s unlike they could get anywhere near Włodarczyk, let alone discus thrower Gabriele Reinsch. Reinsch’s 76.80m throw from 1988 remains the world record for discus, the men’s record set by countryman Jürgen Schult two years prior, the furthest any man has thrown, still 2.72m less than that of Reinsch.
Unrelated to football but maybe just a reminder that an athlete is an athlete and those who push themselves to be the best in their discipline deserve respect, regardless of gender.
“Shut up about discus – who cares about discus, I’d rather watch paint dry – and remind me why I should care about women’s football.”
It takes time, Pelé and Ronaldinho, both great Brazilians, the greatest of their generations but generations apart. The football played by Pelé and Garrincha was exciting and beautiful, it was new and fresh, it blew people away. But if Edson Arantes do Nascimento took to the pitch as a teenager today and attempted to delight audiences he would find himself surrounded by others of his ability, Pelé no more. Alfredo Di Stéfano would be a great player of the modern game but he wouldn’t be a modern great, because football has evolved, players have evolved, that is to say, men’s football has evolved as it’s had the time to.
When you watch back old matches, maybe the glorious World Cup final of ’66, as an English person you may even shed a tear, but if you were to compare that final to the one of 2014 or the matches that are soon to take place in Russia, it’s so far behind. You can watch highlights of the greats and they were good, the best we’d ever seen but they’re dinosaurs, their tricks and tekkers have fallen into obsolescence.
Maybe instead of Bobby Charlton, Lev Yashin and Ferenc Puskás, the women’s game has Marta, Hope Solo (without the hat) and Birgit Prinz and one day, they too will be the old guard, the proverbial dinosaurs.
What we have currently in England in WSL is a sort of mini-Premier League where you can see some of the most talented players in the world, whether it be from the continent or from Asia or Africa or the US. They opt to come over to the English league and play just as their male counterparts would do and with every import the league gets stronger, you can see the individual talents they bring. So too with the increase in professionalism, you can see the benefits, the handful of players who can give up their second jobs and devote themselves to being complete footballers. Though there are many who still study, who have their post-playing careers waiting for them, a degree a necessity to life after their boots have been hung up.
Women’s football has the regular cast of characters, the goal-hanging poachers, the full backs who gobble up ground to get forward and back, the fearless and lunging centre-backs, the pint-sized tricksters. So too the leaping, gravity-defying goalkeepers and their managers that no matter what, staunchly refuse to let them go up for set pieces deep into stoppage time with the game hanging in the balance. There are referees who all too often become the villain of the piece, there are shirt-tugs and mistimed challenges, beautifully sprung offside traps and short corners. Lobs, bicycles, curled free kicks, hanging headers as well as scrappy, dribbly wheezed goals.
Though there are differences; by and large there is little malice in challenges, there is the odd dive from those who should know better but the histrionics and gamesmanship is a fraction of the size of the men’s game. There is a humble honestly about the players, some may have phased away from the rest of the pack, but the majority have time for the fans, they’ll be open and truthful, modest and available.
The comparatively small fan base for women’s football is a loyal one and in return the players stay loyal to those who come out to support them. Maybe this will yet be a part of the game that will fade away, caught up and washed out to sea under the tide of progress.
You could put a women’s match on and see a beautiful, breathless 90-minutes of exquisite skill and spatial awareness that would make Johan Cruyff dribble or you could put on a women’s football match and see an agonising lifeless 90-minutes that stretches out into infinity, taking the rules of time with it.
But the funny thing is, you could put on a men’s match and see a blistering, pulsating 90-minutes of pure and total football or you could put on a men’s match and watch 90 of the most boring minutes of your life, you may even begin to feel your hair growing and greying as one misplaced pass is followed by the next.
Football isn’t always a glorious hour and a half that leaves you hungering for more of the same, sometimes it’s just crap. The difference is when women’s football is of a low standard that’s seen as the norm’, tarring the entire sport but when a men’s match is sub-par, it doesn’t typify the sport nor doesn’t stop people from jumping right to the next.
So maybe the thing to do if you’re new to women’s football and think the quality is low, is to just equate it to a match from the 70s. Maybe the hair isn’t quite so big and the shorts aren’t quite so short, but it’s still football; universal football.