It was the "absolutely, why not?" that did it. Hope Powell's opening gambit when asked, on the children's TV programme Newsround, whether the England women's team could beat the men if they played them has sparked fierce debate and a host of contemptuous comments hurled in the women's coach's direction.
Powell, interviewed by a schoolboy for the BBC show ahead of the women's Euro 2013 tournament in Sweden, where on Friday England lost their first group game 3-2 to Spain, quickly qualified her answer by adding: "Physically the guys are obviously a lot stronger than the women, but if we took it on technical ability we're as good as the men."
The reaction to her comments surprised the coach who has driven the development of the women's game in England since taking charge of the national team in 1998 and who, in reality, does not believe that her team would beat Roy Hodgson's men or indeed any top professional male team.
Powell said: "If anybody out there took those comments seriously then they're stupid. When a young boy who's a bit nervous is interviewing you about football you try to make them feel comfortable, so, 'Can women beat men? Why not?' was a bit of fun, it was said tongue in cheek. Am I serious about it? No I am not. If you're talking about elite athletes the men are too fast, too strong, too powerful for us, but our players are technically gifted and so when a young boy – who incidentally can play mixed football up to the age of 14 or 15 – asks you that question you try to make light of it.
"Would we beat a men's team 11 v 11? I doubt it. But it's not about being competitive against the men, we're just trying to do a good job with women's football and right now we're trying to be competitive in a European Championship. We're competing at the highest level and we want recognition in our own right, not to be compared with the men's game."
Whether the technique of female footballers should be compared to that of their male counterparts is a moot point, but the technical skills of Powell's players were brought into question against Spain. Eleven places lower than England at 18th in the world rankings, the Spaniards out-thought and out-passed England in a game where their victory was deserved even though it came via an own goal by goalkeeper Karen Bardsley four minutes into stoppage time.
Bardsley, outstanding in England's unbeaten qualifying campaign for the finals, allowed the ball to bounce off her arm and then face to drop over the line.
Powell, looking ahead to Monday's second group game, against Russia, asserted that lessons will be learned from the defeat. There's also perhaps a lesson to be learned from her Newsround appearance: as they say, "never work with children or animals".Reuse content