England 3 Finland 2

Euro 2005 ended early with disappointment for the hosts, but this opening win highlighted – rather noisily – the growing enthusiasm for the women’s game, writes Helen Duff

One-second pause. Two-second pause. HONK! One-second pause. Two-second pause. Three-second pause. HONK! HONK! One-second pause. HONNNNNK! (Repeat, unrelentingly, for two hours.)

What separates a prestige football match from an ordinary one isn’t hype, stakes or attendance. It isn’t even television coverage. It’s the fact that every single member of the crowd under the age of 14 will have been bought one of those jumbo kazoos by their accompanying adult and will devote all available breath for the duration of the game to blasting its bland but horribly amplified sound into your poor, tender ears. Because all-seat stadiums aren’t designed to allow escape from this ritualised torture, it’s thus possible to assess the precise stature of a match. You just need to count how many of the grown-up spectators are watching the action with their fingers plugging their ears and their bodies craned so far forward from the hellish noise behind them that their chins rest on the shoulders of the strangers one row down.

By this standard, the opening fixture of Euro 2005 is definitely in the “prestige” category, despite things not looking so certain before kick-off. On the one hand, organisers UEFA have been talking up the tournament as a commercial breakthrough for the female game; the British press has been giving it plenty of attention (albeit in large part wondering why women’s football gets so little press attention); and BBC2 has, in honour of the tonight’s inaugural game, banished whichever documentary about the mating habits of jellyfish it would otherwise have used to fill its Sunday evening schedules.

On the other hand, publicity for the contest in the north-west of England – the tournament’s host region – has been quiet and the Football Association’s advertising campaign has struck an oddly ambivalent note. Some walking to the City of Manchester Stadium for this evening’s international have done so past a large FA billboard featuring a svelte player in profile above the legend “the more beautiful game” – suggesting the powers that be lack enough faith in their product’s athletic appeal not to want to plumb the more sexual, and sexist, “Look, lads! Fit birds!” angle.

As things transpire, lads, or at least unaccompanied ones, don’t noticeably number among the game’s eventual audience. More than 29,000 people do turn up, making a respectable job of filling two of the three tiers and beating the European women’s attendance record. Children feature heavily (and, thanks to those damn kazoos, sonically) and are escorted by parents and/or grandparents of both genders. It is, in short, a mixed if predominantly family-based crowd. Vocally, however, it’s the girls who make the running.

At various points throughout the first half, England keeper Jo Fletcher is called on to make businesslike saves in response to opportunistic sallies from the weaker but less nervy Finland team. Every time Fletcher swoops, a distinctive and attention-grabbing noise soars up from the seats behind her. It’s an ardent, pubescent, identifiably female shriek and I haven’t heard the like of it since Jason Donovan played Bolton Ritzy in 1989. No less vociferous is the junior fan in front of me who greets each of Karen Carney’s effervescent gambols up the wing with a squealing crescendo that must be placing her at prime risk for a hernia.

As responses to a game go, these are unusual – but not necessarily in a bad way. It is, after all, hard to imagine many 12-year-old girls feeling sufficiently at ease in the average Premiership or League crowd to pipe up in such an unbridled fashion, so it’s nice that they’re relaxed enough here. Likewise with the large group of pompom-equipped cheerleaders in the upper tier who occasionally break into spontaneous sexy semaphore: you’d have to feel pretty sure of yourself before you tried that kind of thing at Turf Moor. 

“Unusual – but not necessarily in a bad way” applies equally to other aspects of the match. The ground isn’t segregated, so interspersed among the domestic support are blue-and-white painted faces above T-shirts proclaiming SUOMI. In keeping with this spirit of togetherness, all the normal rules about treating fans like potential rioters seem to have been discarded. For instance, every other time I’ve bought an overpriced bottle of fizzy drink at a football match, it has had its cap removed in an officious bid to stop me wreaking hooligan havoc with a two-inch plastic disc. This time I’m entrusted with the full responsibilities of bottle-top ownership – and even getting access to the stadium had proved free from all the standard suspicion.

Turnstile steward: “Anything sharp in your bag?”

Me: “Don’t think so. [Sizeable pause.] Would you like to check?”

Steward: “Nah, not really. Go on in.”

Whether it’s cause or effect of this general pleasantness, there’s a marked lack of nastiness on the pitch. After 15 minutes, what has been most strikingly demonstrated isn’t any major difference of pace or style between the women’s and men’s game (though you’d have to be myopic not to notice that the ratio of snappy passes to baggy punts is less impressive). It is the relative lack of shoving, shirt-yanking, late-tackling, simulation, dissent, projectile phlegm and general arsiness. In an ideal world, this would obviously prompt a groundswell of support for the female game as a pacifist alternative to the aggression-tainted men’s. In reality, it’s just as likely to prompt us to acknowledge that we all secretly enjoy it when slavering thugs foul one another, malign the referee and – pausing only to expectorate over some unfortunate soul in Row A – kick-start a 15-man brawl. 

The other prime difference between men’s and women’s football seems to be that the women have far more sedate hairdos – employing utilitarian, unadorned ponytails that come as a visual relief after years of having to look at the tonsorial torments of Rio, Becks and friends. But you’re right: that’s a trivial point. So what of the actual game?

Despite winning nine of their previous ten encounters (all friendlies, admittedly) and finding themselves cast tonight against the tournament’s underdogs, England don’t really settle. The two-goal bonus they acquire by half-time may be a fair reflection of their better possession and distribution, but it’s also in large part pure luck. Star striker Kelly Smith, who can usually be relied on to cohere the team, seems tamed by the lingering ankle injury that threatened her participation and the first goal, after 17 minutes, comes courtesy of an accidental if nifty back-heel from Finland captain Sanna Valkonen.

 Its successor, five minutes before half-time, is equally tepid – Amanda Barr getting just enough force to an unwieldy header to inch the ball over the line. There is a clear pause before the crowd realise this second goal has been awarded, but when they do, they go ape. Or more accurately (given the youthfully  high pitch of those making most noise) what the crowd goes is chimp.

After the break, things get progressively looser. Finland, playing with the unhampered pluck of a squad who know they’re rubbish, succeed in getting first one goal back (a virtuoso strike from Anna-Kaisa Rantanen) and then, in the 89th minute, the equaliser (Laura Kalmari’s less fine but highly functional short-range header). England, meanwhile, have spent the half making hectic, jittery attacks – an impassioned but incoherent approach reminiscent of the ethos of that former dweller in this parish, Kevin Keegan.

Their spectators’ nerves, by contrast, seem singularly unjangled. With half an hour to go, a Mexican wave sets in and goes on to complete ten full and leisurely circuits of the stadium. At this point, the viewing experience has become like a cross between a football match and a low-impact cardio workout. And in fact, such is the supremacy of cordial enjoyment over sectarian passion here tonight that, when one florid-faced chap feels moved enough to stand up and bellow a warning of “Man on!”, it’s hard to tell whether the shocked silence that follows his outburst is a rebuke for deploying the wrong gender noun or for exhibiting such high-wrought emotion in the first place.

Into stoppage time, England are apparently doomed to a draw and the crowd – as evidenced by the incessant HONNNNNK!-ing – are apparently completely unfazed. Then, just on full time, 17-year-old Birmingham City forward Carney pounces on to an inadequate clearance from Satu Kunnas and thwacks the winner resoundingly home. The screams (and, naturally, the jumbo kazoos) that applaud her goal merge into the post-whistle celebrations.

It is hard to know whether or not Euro 2005, which ended for England with two late goals for Denmark and then an early one for Sweden, will succeed in providing an international catalyst of support for the domestic women’s game. But on the basis of this match the enthusiasm for female football is visible. Not to mention being very, very audible.

From WSC 222 August 2005. What was happening this month