As Karen Espelund, a Norwegian international and one of more than 120 delegates at last week's Uefa women's football conference in London said: "Our players start with the disadvantage of being in the only sport in which women are compared directly with men. I have even been asked when it will be that a woman will play in a professional men's team. In no other sport would you be challeng- ed with that question. You don't ask that in handball, golf or tennis, so why football?"
She says that the infernal comparison will probably never completely go away, especially in countries, such as Britain, where the male version of the sport is so enormously popular. "All we can do is argue against it. We hope that when people see the excellent performances we expect in the women's World Cup in the United States next year they may think differently. But what we want is for our sport to be organised in the same way as it is for the men. We know there is a physical difference and that will always be there. We only want to be recognised, not compared."
Significantly, the countries with the most open-minded attitude to women's football are Scandinavian. With their diverse sports interests and lack of preoccupation with men's football, the Norwegians in particular are not inclined to make comparisons and will watch the sport in impressively large numbers. When Norway played against the United States in the Olympic semi-finals they had 1.4 million television viewers out of a population of four million. Espelund accepts that in other countries where there is fanatical interest in men's football, the chances of the women's game ever attracting huge audiences, live or through television, are remote. "The further south you get in Europe, the more difficult the attitudes become" she said.
The growth of interest amongst girls at school level in England is indicated by the fact that the FA sanctioned mixed football as recently as 1990, yet this season more than 500 schools will compete in a girls-only national Under-16 competition and 20 counties have asked to be involved in representative football. Younger girls from 685 schools competed in last season's national Under-12 five-a-side event.
The English Schools' Football Association chief executive, Malcolm Berry, said: "The demand for girls' football is tremendous. Seven or eight years ago if you had told me this would happen I wouldn't have believed you." But Espelund cautioned that, in spite of the experience in England, "in a lot of countries in the world it is not possible for every girl who wants to play football to be able to. My hope is that they will. In some countries the game is represented only as a boys' and men's sport, but in England some of the big clubs have been encouraging to the girls."
Whereas Berry says that by and large physical education teachers in England now accept girls' football and encourage it, especially at primary level, Espelund claims that across the Europe there are many teachers who "still think that girls should not play football. There is a long way to go. In Norway we have made a lot of progress but 80 per cent of the boys who play football at school also play for clubs while 80 per cent of the girls who play do not."
Realistically, it is better to ask not whether a woman will ever play for a Premiership club but will a senior professional club ever be coached by a woman? "Why not" Espelund said. "But it will be a long time, partly because of the need for experience but mainly because of the need for a change of attitudes". Mostly men's.
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