Park Life: Do put your daughters on the pitch

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I MUST have seen thousands of games of football. In the past 30-odd years, everywhere from the beach to the stadium, from city park to school playground to village green. Whatever the standard, I always pause to catch a passage of play, with luck even a goal. And in all that time I've never come across women playing.

I know women's football exists, and I've even watched the highlights of an international on television (England lost to Germany), but it is certainly an extremely rare phenomenon.

As the father of two sons and no daughters, this is not a conundrum that often exercises me - although in an age when women have demanded their share of the good things in life, it does seem astonishing that they have left football, unquestionably the world's favourite game, to the boys.

But we spent last Sunday with friends who have two daughters and no sons, and we all agreed - in the flippant way parents do when they have no intention at all of producing further children - that we would happily have a third if we could guarantee its gender.

My wife is more bothered with our lack of a daughter than I am - and with more reason. Her mother has been extremely ill recently, and Ginny has transformed herself into a whirlwind of caring - shopping, cleaning, organising home helps, liaising with specialists, not to mention applying her considerable powers of persuasion to cranking the rusty gears of the under-resourced, over-stretched health service into action. "Every woman should have a daughter," says Ginny. "Sons just aren't able to do all this ..."

And what, if anything, is missing for our friends with two daughters? Adrian dearly enjoys his home life surrounded by adoring females - but he just as clearly relished his game of one-against-one football with my seven-year-old son Darcy on Sunday afternoon. Indeed, I have known him to head off to the pub - any pub - in search of male company when there's an important rugby or football match to be seen on television.

A simple solution, one might have thought in these gender-equal times, would be to expect sons to look after elderly parents and to expose daughters to the delights of the beautiful game at an early age. Ten years ago, before children, the four of us would probably have taken this view, but experience has taught us otherwise - is this, perhaps, what is meant by the baffling phrase post-feminism?

The other day, Ginny asked Darcy and his brother Tom whether they would look after her when she was old and ill. "Course I will, I'll definitely come and see you," said Darcy. "And I'll probably have a nice girlfriend who'll look after you." So much for bullying and bribing the boys to tidy their own rooms or clear their plates from the table after they've eaten; so much for buying a hamster to nurture their nurturing instincts (guess who cleans the cage out).

Likewise, I've always assumed that if I had a daughter, she would get the same introduction to sports as the boys. But even the most football- fanatical girl soon notices that her mother, her friends at school, indeed, females in general don't seem to play - and it takes an extraordinary child to defy that weight of cultural pressure.

I don't think girls are actively discouraged from football any more, and nor do I think that girls are born without the potential desire or skills to play. I used to take part in an informal Sunday morning dads- and-kids game (no mums, naturally), and the only daughter who joined in stood out as the most talented of the kids: I once saw her volley a low cross into the goal with all the predatory instincts of a natural striker, a Denise Bergkamp in the making. But she'll find it difficult to find a more formal game to progress to in her teens - she certainly won't find it at her school, and will in all probability drift away from football.

Last season, the outstanding player in Darcy's under-eights football club - an age when girls give nothing away to boys in physical terms - was the only girl, who dominated through enthusiasm and sheer athleticism, as well as skill and awareness.

Darcy was besotted - a girl who was really good at football - and kept badgering us to invite Annie back for tea. She never came. Sadly, Annie's enthusiasm now seems to have waned, and she has only played a couple of games this season.

Perhaps she's has already questioned her future in football, reviewed her sporting options. There's no doubt that football's loss will be a gain for netball, hockey, lacrosse, or whatever other activity she chooses, because Annie's athletic ability is sure to shine in any sport.

But if, like me, you believe that football is the world's most popular game for a reason - that it offers at once the simplest and most appealing combination of individual and team skills - then you'll agree that this is a pity.