China crisis

Another England quarter‑final exit… Anjana Gadgil assesses the progress of the women’s team and explains why the host nation struggles for players despite a population of 1.6 billion

Imagine a Premier League footballer and England international having to scrimp and save to play for their national team. It just wouldn’t happen in the men’s game. But footballers who double up as postwomen, teachers and PAs have to save to go on a week’s package to Marbella, let alone to spend six weeks playing at last month’s Women’s World Cup in China. Arsenal right-back Alex Scott is one example. She teaches sport science at schools in London, but had to take unpaid leave to go to the Far East. Likewise team-mate and football coach Mary Philip, who describes herself as ­“penniless” when she plays for England. She lives on a council estate in north London with her husband and two children and was one of the few players whose family weren’t in the stands for the group-stage games. “We just couldn’t afford it,” she says.

The FA deny that they leave the women in the lurch; each player was promised a four-figure sum no matter how far the team progressed. It’s likely that was nearer the one-grand mark than the nine-grand one, as it won’t confirm how much. But Philip appreciates that things have changed. She’s the only survivor of the last England squad to play in a World Cup, having spent three weeks warming benches in Sweden as a teenager in 1995. “Back then, we really were given nothing, we had to pay our own expenses and we’d all turn up in different bits of kit,” she says. Now, as well as getting an allowance, they’re given phones, laptops and ­dolly‑trollies from M&S for trips abroad. Sepp Blatter’s call for the girls to play in hotpants was wisely ignored, but they’re sporting flattering fitted shirts with patterned detailing at the seam. But for all the improvements there’s still a long way to go. It’s no coincidence that striker Kelly Smith kissed her Umbro-sponsored boots after scoring twice against Japan while she’s trying to save up for a deposit on a flat in London.

The team may be only semi-pro, but their six-packs are evidence of the professional approach of England manager Hope Powell. “Back in ’95 we trained twice a week, but now we train by ourselves every day and we’ve got dieticians and trainers on hand,” Philip says. This commitment to fitness has paid dividends in recent years, although, as they found in a 3-0 defeat to a clinical United States side in the quarter-finals, fitness isn’t a substitute for playing full-time.

But while the England girls aren’t yet on a par with their American counterparts, at least they love the game. It’s very different in the host nation. Chinese girls don’t play football at school, or in the streets. Karl Hawkins is the director of Coerver Coaching Schools in China and estimates there are only a couple of thousand girls playing in a country with a population of ­1.6 billion. “With only one child and a focus on education, girls aren’t encouraged to take up any sport, let alone football, which is seen as rough and unladylike,” he says. The ­Chinese FA goes to schools around the country and selects girls on the basis of their athleticism. They’re then taken to boarding schools where they’re taught to play football and educated in the ways of the game, and it’s from this pool of players that the national team are chosen. It’s a system that Hawkins says is unnatural and flawed: “These girls don’t love football and they don’t understand football culture. We need to get more girls playing at grassroots level because they love it, and the national team will improve as a result.”

Women’s football in China was popular in the late 1990s, peaking in 1999 when the team lost to the Americans in the World Cup final at the Pasadena Rose Bowl. But their fortunes have dwindled and so has the interest, both in the national team and in the sport. The organisers at Shanghai’s Hongkou Stadium saved face by filling the empty seats with schoolchildren for England’s first two group games. But anyone watching England play in Tianjin against the biggest names in the sport, the USA, would have seen row upon row of empty seats, despite tickets selling for just £1.20. That’s petty cash for most people in that metropolis.

Viewing figures in England are on the increase, thanks to the BBC’s decision to televise the games. But every time women’s football comes under the spotlight the players seem to shoot themselves in the foot. England and Everton keeper Rachel Brown was near-impeccable during the group games, tucked away at lunchtime on BBC2, but during the quarter-final, shown on BBC1 on a Saturday afternoon, the ball bounced over her head, gifting the US a third goal and women’s football haters (Gary Newbon, Mike Newell) unnecessary ammunition. And Brown’s was one of a litany of errors that went back to the opening goal of the tournament, when the Argentina keeper pushed the ball into her own net from a corner against Germany – to groans from a press pack that is always on the defensive.

Football blogs made interesting reading after the USA match, not least due to the number of contributors. In fact the UK sports media have never been so open to the women’s game; all the papers carried coverage of the tournament, both on and off the pitch. But to get closer to the front pages, which is no more than their hard work deserves, the women are going to have to work harder still. In order to build on the interest this World Cup campaign created, their love of the game alone won’t suffice. 

From WSC 249 November 2007