The Last Word: Why women's game must be judged on performance only
Cricket and football teams need to reject patronising praise and face the scrutiny of results
Sunday 11 August 2013
The solitary women's Ashes Test begins today at Wormsley, arguably the most beautiful cricket ground in England. The irony that the venue is a paternalistic vision of the game's gentility and timelessness should not detract from the significance of the moment.
Its pastoral setting in the folds of the Chiltern Hills, and its hallmark, a thatched pavilion adjoined by a red telephone box, are emblematic of a powerful man's passion. Sir Paul Getty lavished millions on his Buckinghamshire estate before his death in 2003, and would have relished the incongruity of its status as a symbol of inclusivity.
The Ashes series, a confection of five-day, 50-over and t20 matches, is artificial in nature, but the sort of platform which encourages serious assessment. If women's sport is to progress and generate the recognition it demands and deserves, it must reject patronising praise and submit itself to scrutiny.
In short, it is time to get real. It is fatuous to allow political correctness to pollute reasoned argument. Affirmative action actively harms the cause of women's sport, because of the attendant perception that its natural audience is no longer trusted to judge it on its own merits.
An increased profile places the accent on performance. There can be no more sinecures. Well-meaning but ultimately self-defeating exoneration of under-achievement should be discouraged. Judgements will inevitably be harsh and infuriatingly superficial, because that is the modern way.
Australia arrive at Wormsley as holders of the Ashes. They defeated England, the reigning champions, in last year's World t20 final and won this year's World Cup, in which England's title defence was undermined by a narrow, but genuinely shocking loss to outsiders Sri Lanka.
Context is everything in international sport. Australia and England, the only Test-playing nations in women's cricket, have holistic, well-funded programmes. New Zealand have only four players on part-time contracts; the 17 contracted players of Pakistan earn less than £100 a week.
Charlotte Edwards's players are part-time but have access to the support structure developed for the men's game. The captain's wider ambassadorial role, at which she excels, should not be allowed to disguise her vulnerability should England's decline, gentle since 2009, accelerate.
Such personalisation of pressure may be unfair but it carries a certain perspective. In football's case, the insistence on change is irreversible. In stark terms, the Football Association must summon the collective courage to dismiss England manager Hope Powell as a matter of urgency.
A new World Cup qualifying programme begins against Belarus on September 21. The portents are hardly encouraging. England, ranked fourth in Europe, finished 12th out of 12 teams in last month's European Championship. It was an abject performance which smacked of complacency, inadequacy and indifference.
Powell, the pivotal figure in the women's game for 15 years, selected six patently unfit players in an unbalanced squad which depended on fading former heroines. England were a disaster waiting to happen, and an inquest waiting to be held.
The compromise, of Powell being promoted without trace to a newly developed strategic role overseeing elite performance, has already been publicly dismissed by Sir Trevor Brooking, the FA's development director. The consensus is that her time is up.
The problem is the lack of a cogent succession plan. There are no female English coaches of sufficient quality. The outstanding candidate, Pia Sundhage, Fifa's World Coach of the Year in 2012, is an Anglophile but has only recently returned to manage her native Sweden.
The best male coach in the women's game, John Herdman, is English, but has the attractive job of managing Canada, with the prospect of a home World Cup on the horizon. If the FA cannot recruit him, Dan Ashworth, its new head of elite development, should be instructed to employ an emerging coach from the men's game.
Don't shoot the messenger. Listen to the message. Change is coming.
Spurs' kids club stoops to new low
Who says men cannot multi-task? Daniel Levy, the Tottenham chairman, may be preoccupied with relieving Real Madrid of a world-record transfer fee for Gareth Bale, but he still found time to sanction a new low in sports marketing.
Tottenham Turfies are fictional, avatar-style characters who feature in "an innovative digital gaming platform" which targets children between seven and 10. The initiative is, in essence, a form of grooming for commercial purposes.
Spurs claim they are providing "a unique proposition that combines children's love of fun and interactive games with their passion for football". They confirm the scheme is aimed at "millions of young supporters across the globe, from the USA to China to the UK".
Sign-up requires a parental email address. Children are unable to interact with each other within the site. Only the club is able to send messages to users via the "Turfie mail box".
Children are encouraged to earn virtual trophies, medals and coins. These can be converted into Spurs merchandise or tickets to club-sanctioned Fun Days, open training sessions or stadium tours. Places on Tottenham Soccer Schools are also available. It is crass, exploitative and shameless. If you're surprised, you haven't been paying attention.
Today's big game is not the Community Shield at Wembley but a Coventry City Legends match at the Ricoh Stadium. Such mass defiance of middle age is rarely pretty. But a big, exultant crowd will challenge the Football League. They must not allow the charade of Coventry's exile in Northampton to continue.
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