'GET OFF the field, you filthy black bastard,' shouted the man in front of me. 'He doesn't know any better]' the bloke behind yelled back. 'Go on, take him out.'

This may help to explain why so few women go to football. There was an edge of self-parody to the backchat, but the racism was real, and the atmosphere teetered on the verge of violence. The spectators on Wednesday night were actually pretty good-humoured - Queen's Park Rangers and Chelsea supporters were all mixed up in the stand, and tolerated each other with mockery and some wit.

But the wit often depended on aggressive and shocking insults, of a sort that would have been utterly unacceptable anywhere else. The men shouting knew, I think, how absurd it was, belittling black players whose skill had brought them there in the first place, and who had achieved far more than they ever would themselves. But that didn't stop them.

Women like to think that they're above such stupid, unnecessary aggression. They like to think they don't easily subordinate themselves to causes, least of all unimportant ones such as football teams. There were few women at this match and, as far as I could see, no gangs of girls on their own.

At some football clubs, women account for up to a fifth of the gate, but at many, they are no more than 7 or 8 per cent. Women feel excluded from our national game, and perhaps, from sport in general. Sometimes they are positively hostile. 'Are there any men free from the swine fever that is sport?' Catherine Bennett asked recently in Esquire, in an article deriding sport as something that has 'infected public affairs and contaminated the home'.

In the Guardian Suzi Pritchard dismissed team sports as 'primarily for spectators who can relive the testosterone-laden thrills of their youth or forget the beer belly blossoming over their midriff'. Wherever women gather, you hear the same complaint: there's too much sport on television and in the papers, and men talk about it all the time when they could be talking about proper things, like emotions.

But might we actually be missing out on something here? On Ryan Giggs, deftly dodging defenders, for example; on Curtly Ambrose's speed, on Magic Johnson's leaps; on fluidity, startling technique, excitement, not to mention conversation the next day? If women were as supercilious about politics or the theatre as they are about sport, they would be ridiculed.

Yet many women see their ignorance of sport as a cause for self-congratulation. 'I don't see why I should be interested,' one woman said to me. 'Sport is just men's way of never growing up.' And then they marvel that men and women so frequently fail to communicate.

Of course, it's not just that women deny themselves. At Wednesday's match I saw men with eyes shining, mouths open, leaping to their feet and screaming. They were abandoned to passion, and a passion rather greater than was merited by the action on the field. The football wasn't bad, but the spectating was fierce.

Being there, caring, shouting, was what it was all about, and you could see that they wouldn't have wanted sceptical wives and girlfriends along to say 'What are you getting in such a state about? It's not even a very good game.'

At Arsenal, most supporters seem to be under the impression that they're really George Graham. 'I was quite pleased with Merson in the first half,' they mutter, and 'Wrighty shouldn't do that. I've said before.' The last thing they'd want is some woman looking on and pitying.

John Williams, of the Centre for Football Research, argues that football is more popular among women in towns where urban working class culture is less dominant, where there's 'less sense of appropriate behaviour for men and women. In Newcastle or Glasgow, football is men's space and place; where men go to get away from women. To bring a partner would violate that, and risk criticism from your mates. And a woman who's interested in football then becomes open to accusations that she's not a real woman.'

The Centre surveyed schoolgirl football fans in Liverpool and found that all-girl groups were ritually subjected to harassment - whistling, hooting, and name-calling. Significantly perhaps, women's football teams have grown faster in the south than the north (around 40 per cent of professional clubs now have an affiliated women's team), in contrast to the men's game, which spread first in the north.

Jennifer Hargreaves, author of Sporting Females notes that boys read Shoot (the latest issue includes not one picture of a woman), whereas girls read comics in which sports, if featured at all, are a background to the main story.

'You can't possibly understand football the way I do,' one man said to me, 'because you haven't spent your childhood fantasising about scoring a hat-trick at Wembley. And when you see a goal it doesn't remind you of the exact same goal you scored at primary school.' Another said: 'Football is different for you, because when you were constipated as a child, you didn't sit reciting the names of the Arsenal team.'

In adolescence, girls retreat to their bedrooms to experiment with makeup and clothes, dream of romance, and talk. Female interest in sport gradually becomes an interest in fitness, which is really an interest in appearance and sexiness. Jennifer Hargreaves says she recently bought a copy of Family Circle because of a cover line about how women could keep fit through sport. 'The sports were stepping, rambling and yoga, and not one picture showed a woman in action. All the photographs were of models. The text may have been 'You'll get fit,' but the message was 'You'll get attractive.' '

Where women do become permanently interested in sport, it's often because of some guy. Jayne Cloney lives with Gary Havelock, a professional speedway rider and 1992 World Champion (they feature in the Channel 4 Champions series tomorrow). 'I do like speedway,' Jayne says, 'but when you've been going nine years you get a bit sick of the same old routine. I go solely to watch Gary now. Between March and October, if he's not at the race track he's on the phone organising things. It's a bit impossible to have a social life outside speedway.'

But it doesn't have to be like this. Amanda Barford loved football at primary school and cricket at secondary school; when she was 17 she went to America and became addicted to American football. Recently she's become interested in basketball. 'I was always a tomboy; I was good at football. In the playground, people wanted me on their teams. I never talked about cricket at my girls' school - it was a sort of secret enthusiasm - but I had posters all over my room, and filed away press reports, and I did talk about it to my dad. Sport was definitely a way of having an added connection with my father.'

This echoes the experience of other women who have developed an independent interest in sport. And John Williams says that statistically, fathers are much more important than mothers in determining whether girls will follow sport. Eleanor Oldroyd, now a BBC radio sports presenter, remembers her father writing to her headmistress requesting a day off so that they could go to a Test match at Lord's. 'He said I had expressed an interest in becoming the first woman cricket correspondent of the Times. I'm sure he made it up, but my headmistress loved it.'

Amanda Barford, now a history teacher, believes women watch sport differently from men. 'I sometimes have American football parties for the Superbowl, and men are incredibly competitive, showing off about knowing the rules and the names of the players. And none of the women I know are nationalistic or follow teams blindly. If the Italians are playing football well, I'll follow them, and I'm supporting the West Indians at cricket. I can't understand that my husband's so hung up on English football, English cricket.'

She doesn't mind that men assume she's only interested in ogling. 'I play up to the idea that I only watch because I fancy the players. I do like looking at extremely lithe athletic black men, and often the most charismatic players are very good looking. You don't get ugly quarter backs. It's very odd.'

She does find sport a way of talking to men, 'although I'm not sure that any of them would actually solicit my ideas on Spurs' prospects for next season. But I do find it weird when people who love sport are married to people who aren't interested at all. Watching sport is a huge part of my relationship with my husband.'

Sexual sporting apartheid is probably weaker than it has been for quite a long time. The softening of football's image has helped: the Taylor report has made stadiums much less threatening. Play has become more stylish, and clever, thoughtful supporters like Nick Hornby and David Baddiel have raised the levels of cool.

It's even become politically acceptable: the Thatcher administration gave the impression it thought all football supporters were thugs, but the current government has realised football could be a vote-winner - and the Prime Minister, Kenneth Clarke and David Mellor have all come out as supporters.

The reintroduction of compulsory school sports may help. Vic Akers, who runs the Arsenal women's team, says he asks schoolgirls to run twice round the gym now, and they can't do it because they are so unfit.

There's no reason why women shouldn't play football as well as men, nor watch it with as much enthusiasm. Rugby league is a family game, and the atmosphere at matches is electric; in Japan, football is watched mainly by teenage girls; and in America, sports events are a family day out (excellent facilities help). For women to persist in deriding and despising sport just because some men are creeps is pretty much an own goal.

(Photographs omitted)

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