Euro 96 revisited

Pete Davies says that England's women footballers have a big incentive
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The Independent Online
The England women's football team face Spain at Prenton Park this afternoon with a great deal riding on the outcome. If they can overturn a 2-1 deficit from the away leg three weeks ago, they qualify for a place in the last eight of the European Championship. More than that, however, Uefa are now contemplating putting those last eight teams into a proper tournament in a single location - and after the success of Euro 96, should England make the last eight, the FA will probably bid to host it.

It would be an enormous shot in the arm for the English women's game. With the formation of a National League five years ago, the quality of the football played by the best clubs has dramatically improved, but off the field, funding and support remain pitifully threadbare. The coaching, coverage, sponsorship and facilities available to women's clubs in Scandinavia and Germany are the stuff of dreams for English players who, in many cases, often have trouble getting time off work to play at all.

The national side, at least, are notably better equipped since the FA took them over three years ago, and in their group games they put paid to Portugal and Croatia without much difficulty. Italy, however, were too strong, leaving them to tackle Spain in this play-off. In the away leg, which kicked off at noon in the Andalucian heat of Montilla, near Cordoba, England were two behind before they came to terms with the conditions. In the second half, Croydon's Hope Powell pulled one back but the goalkeeper Rosa Serra made a string of fine saves to preserve Spain's advantage. Serra knows her opponents well; she played for Arsenal Ladies last season.

England's chances of beating her rest in no small part on the form of Wembley's Kelly Smith, a stunningly quick winger who, though not yet 18, has four goals in seven appearances. Somewhat more experienced, meanwhile, the Doncaster Belles captain Gillian Coultard will be hoping for a record 93rd cap in midfield.

Another name to watch is the goalkeeper Pauline Cope who with the Millwall Lionesses recorded a surprise 1-0 win over Coultard's Belles last Sunday to go top of the National League. The game was watched by barely 100 - but as Merseyside is a hotbed of women's football, with Liverpool, Everton and today's hosts Tranmere all having sides in the Women's National Division, the FA are confident they can do better and can surpass the 2,400 who turned out in Spain. With so much at stake, it would be a crying shame if they didn't.