Football: More emotion does not necessarily mean less authority

ON problems encountered by women on and off the pitch
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The Independent Online
Never mind David Mellor and his contentious comments about Chris Kamara's sacking, what about the remarks made this week by one of Mellor's BBC colleagues, Zoe Ball?

Radio One's Breakfast Show presenter, a Manchester United fan for all of about five years (ie since their domination began), introduced her Dream Team on Radio Five Live on Monday, among them the "scrummy" David Beckham and the "mean and moody" Roy Keane who, apparently, "has all the assets of a real footballer". She did not seem to be referring to Keane's box-to-box engine and passing skills.

Just a bit of fun, no doubt, but it still did women in football a huge disservice. We've climbed the proverbial mountain to get where we are today - on a par, for the most part with our male contemporaries - and 30 minutes worth of Ball's flippancies lowered our stock considerably.

Sure, women tend to have a more emotional perspective on the game, but more emotion does not necessarily mean less authority. I hope I am viewed as a football journalist who just happens to be a woman rather than a woman football journalist. Believe me, there is a big difference.

However, the one aspect of the game in which women will never be the equal of men is on the pitch. But it is in being compared to the men's game that women's football has suffered. As Pete Davies, the author of I Lost My Heart to the Belles, says: "You wouldn't expect a woman cricketer to bowl as fast as Courtney Walsh or Sally Gunnell to race Linford Christie, so why expect the Doncaster Belles to be of comparable standard to Doncaster Rovers?" Until we start coming from that standpoint, the woman's game will not get the respect it deserves.

Davies has done more than most to promote women's football in this country, but the Football Association has also played a part, assuming responsibility for the women's game from the WFA in 1993.

And while the nation might not be aware of it, engulfed as it is in all things appertaining to France 98, women's football is having something of a purple patch. There are now 600 women's teams in the UK and at least 750 girls' teams, as compared to 263 in 1989. In fact, the growth has been such that the current set-up needs restructuring.

Fifa, meanwhile, estimates the number of women playing football worldwide at around 30 million, while almost six million tuned into the 1995 World Cup final in Sweden between Germany and Norway. The 1996 Olympic Games final, in which the US beat China 2-1, attracted a crowd of 76,000.

Davies accepts the growth in the number of participants, and in the extent of the coverage, but maintains that the standard of women's football in the UK has hardly changed in a decade. Which might be why the FA hosted a pow-wow this week at Lancaster Gate for the major players in the women's game aimed, among other things, at "identifying and developing talented female players from an early age" through better training, better support networks (rehabilitation, nutrition and diet) and better funding. They want women's football to become the UK's major female sport.

The Lottery Sports Fund will have a big say in whether they achieve that aim, but it is attitude as much as money that is the issue here. Germany's women footballers train four nights a week and the game gains extensive coverage; ditto Scandinavia. In the US, around nine million women play football, while Japan will support a professional women's league next year.

Consequently, their players are fitter and more athletic than ours, who lack the opportunities to hone their skills from an early age.

But the goalposts are shifting. I played football at school in the days when a girl playing football was "just not on". I had to play in the boys' under-11 team and was allocated a separate changing-room for away matches. (My career reached an abrupt end when I broke the captain of the school's ankle with a terrible tackle). These days, however, it is common to see both boys and girls playing football together at school.

So while next year's women's World Cup in America might come too soon as far as the British game is concerned (England are vying to qualify with world champions Norway, Germany and the Netherlands; their next match is against Germany at the New Den on 8 March), by the time the next World Cup arrives, it might, as they say, be a different ball game all together.

Part of the problem has also been that our culture does not support a dedicated national women's sport. Netball comes closest, but with all due respect it hardly stiffens the sinews (my knowledge extends to the fact that England star Gill Neville is Gary and Phil's sister, and that we always get beaten by the Aussies).

Perhaps if women's football was allowed to stand on its own two feet rather than constantly having to match - and, by definition, failing to do so - the standard set by the men's game, it might assume that role. Granted, it has some similarities with the men's game - Arsenal and Liverpool are among its top six clubs - but very few in reality. Everton are top of the Premier League, for a start.

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