Football has more female fans than ever before but Simon Tindall wonders if they are to likely to take an interest in the women’s game

I’ll watch any kind of football from sons and dads on the beach, pub teams in the park to the Masters tournaments on Sky. But the words “women’s football” get me reaching for the remote as fast as if the continuity man had said Formula One or Open golf. The Women’s World Cup was an opportunity to reassess this position. The manner of the coverage on the BBC and in quality press obliges you to be interested, to view this as a “good thing” – like five fruit and veg a day – as opposed to a “bad thing” to be media‑ignored like speedway, greyhounds or most boxing.

After a half-century ban, women’s football started again in the same early-Seventies era as Pot Black brought snooker to the TV screen. Within a decade the Embassy and The Crucible were national institutions. Twenty20 cricket has gone from the drawing board to a captivating World Cup in just four years. Even rugby union’s ponderous and cantankerous Guinness Premiership has made significant progress over the last ten. As a spectator sport, women’s football is still banging the drum.X

Some sports are great to play but have little spectator appeal – hockey, lacrosse, fishing, for instance. Women’s football has had more media endorsement than these – no equivalent of Gregory’s Girl, The Manageress and Bend it like Beckham for hockey – but it just does not seem to catch on for me or the many football fans I know. It always seems to be demanding more attention but never getting enough response. Here are three reasons why this may be the case.

Women are increasingly passionate and numerous as spectators of the men’s game. A couple of years ago some female Charlton Athletic fans told me about women’s football and the Charlton Ladies team. They could not have been less interested and saw it as a (very minor) potential threat to support and revenue for the main club. If female fans take that view – not all, but quite possibly the majority – it’s not a ringing endorsement. Nor are the determined efforts of female refereeing officials to be part of the men’s game – despite all the touchline abuse they unfortunately receive. The apparent lack of appeal of women’s football among women may – however irrationally – be a barrier to male interest.

Next and inevitably there is the issue of the standard of play. Unluckily, I caught the highlights of Germany 11 Argentina 0 – rather more than the Argentina keeper seemed to catch. Too harsh to judge on one performer, though. The skills are there, it is said, but the physicality of borderline legality – central to the men’s game – is not. Alcohol-free lager, missing an essential ingredient, comes to mind and, unconnectedly, the Bobby Riggs question. In the early 1970s Riggs, a former Wimbledon champion in his mid-fifties, beat Margaret Court before losing comprehensively to Billie Jean King in an attempt to establish the comparative levels of men’s and women’s tennis. Within men’s football there is a giant machinery of schools, youths, parks, pyramids and internationals, so the spectator has some idea of the merit and credibility of every team. What level of men’s football would the England women’s team beat? No idea – and most people would say it’s a stupid and irrelevant question because it’s a different sport. But is it or isn’t it?

Attached or not? The schizoid relationship with professional football clubs is also an issue. Increasingly, news about women’s football appears alongside the male game in, say, the Guardian or on Ceefax. If the typical fan reads “Arsenal 12 Liverpool 0” he or she will think they are in a parallel universe – and they are, there’s more than one Arsenal. The great names of English football draw their strength from territoriality and continuity, but women’s football can be will o’ the wisp. Charlton effectively poached their women’s set-up from Croydon a few years ago and cut them loose this year as a cost-cutting exercise without any effective protest. It begs the question whether in Britain the women’s game – as a spectator sport in terms of its imagery and organisation – has come too close to the men’s game for its own good. Celebrating the difference rather than emulating the institution is the way ahead. Alcohol-free lager never made it big.

From WSC 249 November 2007


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