As you may have noticed, the Women’s World Cup is taking place in Canada and it seems to be generating a lot more coverage than any of the previous editions.
For most male football fans, women’s football has traditionally been treated as something of a joke and, while distancing myself from the banter that inevitably crosses the line to crude sexism, my own previous viewing experiences of the sport had confirmed the widely held view that: it’s just not very good. I had, therefore, been paying little attention to goings-on in Montreal, Vancouver and Winnipeg.
Most football sites seem to concur. They may feature the occasional match report on games such as the Women’s FA Cup Final, but they’re usually relegated to the sidebar or some one-off feature.
However, that all seemed to have changed when, on Sunday morning, I awoke in Tokyo wishing to check the result of Scotland and Ireland’s rather key Euro qualifier.
I loaded up the BBC football page excited and nervous about whether the first thing I’d see would be a beaming Shaun Maloney, arms wide in celebration, or a despondent David Marshall, head drooping as he trudges for the tunnel.
I saw neither. Instead, I was greeted with an image of England players celebrating a World Cup win over Mexico.
Now, I understand perfectly well that the other home nations are always going to play second fiddle to England when they have games at the same time and I’m perfectly okay with that – the population of England is nearly ten times that of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined – but this was the England Women’s team.
Are so many people suddenly interested in women’s football, I wondered, that it’s been promoted to the number one football story of the day? I would have been surprised to see a women’s game ahead of a men’s friendly, let alone a competitive game between a home nation and an English speaking nation just a hop, a skip and a jump away and with a sizable population residing within the UK.
Well, I thought, if it really is that popular, maybe it’s improved. Maybe all this coverage is merited. Or is it all just a poorly misguided attempt to create equality? I decided it was time to have another watch.
I chose a game the next available day based on which one looked to be the highest quality and decided on hosts Canada v the Netherlands, two teams ranked 8th and 12th in the world respectively. I also watched the highlights of a dozen more games to get a more rounded view of the competition. Here are my thoughts:
Other than for the Canada game – for which there was a sizable crowd inside the stadium – there seemed to be a distinct lack of noise. Was this just poor positioning of microphones? I had to wait for goals to find out.
When the ball hit the back of the net, there was a definite cheer, but nothing like the roar of a men’s game. There was none of the sudden rush you feel and see in a serious competitive sporting event. Instead people slowly stood, gathered their flags and waved about.
It is glacial. While there was little discernible difference in the speed the ball moved on the pitch – other than when shooting – this only served to make the lack of pace of the players all the more obvious.
Instead of seeing strikers sprinting onto zipped through balls, we witnessed the ball speeding away from players who looked like they were jogging and were only able to catch up to it once it had slowed dramatically.
I’d never noticed this before, but in the men’s game, the ball essentially doesn’t stop unless someone puts their foot on top of it. In the women’s game it frequently rolls to a near halt while players run too slowly to meet it.
In all sports, players make errors. It’s part of the game and adds to the excitement. However, the sheer number made during the games I watched was embarrassing. Players slipped, keepers fumbled, passes were misplaced, jumps were mistimed; players missed the ball, missed open goals. Through it all, the movement and shape of the teams were amateur at best.
It was not unusual to see four to six players all gathered round the ball – like you see in primary school games – swinging their feet at it without making solid contact until it eventually bobbled away into empty space. I did see some nice goals in the highlights reels, but I saw a lot more that were either easily preventable or gifted by dreadful mistakes.
I would challenge anyone to watch Switzerland’s eighth and ninth goals in their 10-1 rout of Ecuador and then claim they were watching a professional sporting event.
This was what perhaps leant the experience the ultimate air of amateurism. Not that the commentators were bad, just that they were utterly averse to offering any sort of criticism of anybody.
Instead of denigrating players for fresh air swipes, they were applauded for “nearly getting there”, instead of the usual “oh dear” that follows a misplaced pass, we were told the player was “unlucky”.
This generosity extended even to the officials who made several shocking decisions but were only described as being “perhaps a little hasty with the flag” when a player was over a yard onside. To my ears, it came over as nothing less than patronising.
What I saw on the pitch was not impressive. I was, to be brutally honest, bored. Admittedly, I had no vested interest in who won, but nor did I care who emerged victorious when Argentina played Germany last year or when Barcelona played Juventus two weeks ago and I enjoyed both games thoroughly.
Which led me to wonder why. What is it about 22 foreign players, playing for teams I don’t support that makes for such must-watch viewing?
The reason, I believe, is that we are seeing the best of the best. We are watching the limits of human potential. When I see Germany breaking at pace, David Silva whipping in crosses, Messi dribbling, Ronaldo leaping for a header, I am seeing things that neither I, nor anyone I know, can possibly do. At its best, football can be legitimately described as breath-taking.
Women’s football cannot. Outside the media, there seems to be little to no interest in the tournament and it’s clear why. The quality is no better than League Two (I’m exaggerating – it’s not even close), and until it improves that’s about as much coverage as it should get.
By all means, push aside a game between Hartlepool and Mansfield for women’s football, some people are interested, but please don’t relegate an important game attended by nearly 50,000 for the sake of equality.