Pitch battle

Next month, England hosts one of the biggest events in women's sport - but the chances are you've never heard of it. Rose George meets the footballers fighting for a level playing field
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The Independent Football

In the boardroom at Wingate FC in Finchley, north London, Faye White shakes her head. The 27-year-old captain of England's women's football team is looking through the papers on the morning after a historic victory. "Such a huge achievement and there's no coverage anywhere!" The day before, England's women had defeated Norway for the first time in 19 years, with 20-year-old Anita Asante scoring the winner. But, beyond the 6,500 fans who bothered to make it to Barnsley's Oakwell Stadium, who knew?

Yet the women's game is growing fast. In the past year, according to research by the FA, 2 million girls under 15 have played football, compared to 3 million boys of the same age. At club level, football is bigger among women than netball and hockey, and given the record of the England team - eight wins in nine games - it's also probably better. You just wouldn't know it, unless you knew about it already.

This is supposed to change in June, when England hosts Euro 2005, the UEFA European Women's Championship. There will be TV coverage on the BBC and Eurosport, which says it will be "the largest international sporting event staged in the UK this year" - 15 matches, an expected UK audience of 2 million, and 10 million across Europe. Eight teams will take part, including the mighty women's footballing nation of Germany, where the national side attracts crowds of 15,000 and the top two clubs pull in £400,000-£500,000 in sponsorship.

So what's to complain about? Nothing, except that the events of next month are the exception. One Saturday I get to see the rule. British women's football, for the most part, is not all TV cameras and audiences of millions, even at the top level. At Wingate FC, the league winners Arsenal Ladies, with world-class internationals such as Faye White, Angela Banks and Kelly Smith, are playing the once invincible Fulham Ladies, coached by the former England star Marieanne Spacey. It's the equivalent of Chelsea vs Manchester United. But here we are on a middling pitch, in front of a couple of hundred spectators and an ad for The World of Kosher. There's no media in sight, except one man with a camera who works for the FA. There's no glitz and no glamour, if by that you really mean the money and the egos of the men's game. The players have semi-professional contracts but you'd be forgiven for thinking the surroundings look a bit amateur.

The players don't, though. The glamour here may lie in the sight of 22 athletic women, many with swinging blonde ponytails, or in the striking beauty of Arsenal's six-foot Irish keeper, Emma Byrne. But it also comes from the fact that these women are, as Spacey says, "role models for young girls. They're athletic. They send a good message to girls to come out and play football, that it's healthy." They also play highly skilled football. But not men's football. This is different.

"The women's game is slower," says White, "but the skill levels are higher. It's a passing game. It's the game of football played to women's strengths." Slower doesn't mean boring. Today, the match finishes 6-2 to Arsenal. This certainly doesn't seem to be the same sport that Gary Newbon, ex-controller of Carlton Sport, described a couple of years ago when he said, "Women can't play and nobody wants to watch them." The game is fast enough and the women are impressive, even on a f sub-standard pitch. "We normally play at Borehamwood," says the Arsenal manager Vic Akers, the man who started Arsenal Ladies in 1987. But there was a clash - Borehamwood was hosting its annual children's six-a-side - so Wingate stepped in. "That happens a lot in women's football."

Asante, a pleasant and articulate politics student at Brunel University when she's not scoring goals for England, smiles ruefully. "It does bother me," she says, when I ask why these teams have to play on a pitch far removed from the turf of Highbury. "I do sometimes think, come on now, why do we have to play on this?" But she's polite and level-headed, and puts a good face on it. "A pitch like this isn't doing us any favours. On the flipside though, if you play on a bad pitch, your skills can only get better."

The pitch might not be great but the game still satisfies the fans. Most are families with young girls, the target audience of women's football. "We're not going to get the male fan base," says White, "so we push the fact that it's an enjoyable game for families to watch." It seems to be working, even if the numbers aren't enormous, and is helped by ticket prices that range from £3 to free. Stephanie Keenan, a 13-year-old footballer with Luton's Sundon Park Ladies, has travelled here with her parents. She's a member of the Junior Gunners, the Arsenal fan club, and she'd be in the Ladies' fan club, if only there were one. "There's no season ticket either," she adds. Still, she dreams of playing for Arsenal. "They get their pick of players," says Spacey, the Fulham manager, of her rivals today. "But they've got the resources. They're a credit to the system."

Arsenal runs a player-on-player sponsorship system - the men's team dip into their deep pockets to financially support the women's team (though no one will say how much they give), and they have nice pictures taken together. "It's not just PR," says Lianne Sanderson, Arsenal's talented 17-year-old forward, who is paired with Thierry Henry. "They respect us." When Arsenal Ladies won the FA Cup and league double, they went out on the victory buses with the men. This year, the club has produced a mixed team photo for the first time. "Arsene Wenger came up to me," says Asante, "and told me my style of play reminded him of Kolo Toure. That was really important to me, that he'd noticed, and thought about it enough to say that."

Everyone in women's football says that the system is progressing. There were 11,200 registered female players in 1993, and there are 130,000 today. In the past year alone, participation has gone up 30 per cent, according to FA figures. Attendance is growing too. "We had six-and-a-half thousand for the England-Norway friendly," says White. "And that was on a Friday night." There is a good network of FA regional managers and directors, and a network of 42 Centres of Excellence to train players from the age of eight. Loughborough University's National Player Development Centre is currently training 20 élite players.

But things used to be better. This little-watched sport used to be huge. No one has participation figures for the dawn of women's football, which - according to frescoes, at least - was during China's Dong Han dynasty, in the first century. But in England in the early 20th century, someone was counting. The First World War left a big man-shaped hole in the country, and women filled it more ways than one. They did their jobs, and they began to play their men's sport. Women's football teams were begun to raise money for war charities, and the football frenzy spread. A 1920 match between Dick Kerr's Ladies (from Dick Kerr's munitions factory in Preston) and St Helen's Ladies at Goodison Park was watched by 53,000 people. That was too many for the FA to stomach: in 1921, it issued the opinion that "the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged". It also accused teams of diverting charity funds to other purposes. Neither was true, but the ban worked. Women's football stayed in the wilderness - no leagues, no support - until 1966, when the World Cup raised interest again. By 1993, when the FA paid for its sins of 1921 by taking on the women's league, there were several hundred clubs. Now, given the FA's women's football web pages and its funding of leagues and clubs at a grass-roots level, its support can't be doubted. But for some, it's not enough.

"They promised a professional league by 2003," says Spacey. "It hasn't happened." Fulham has some cause to be bitter. The team turned professional in 2001, backed by cash from Mohamed al-Fayed, with expectations of others to follow. They had daily training, good kit, decent salaries; it was a glimpse of how things could be. They demolished oppositions with scores of 15-0. But no one else could afford to follow, and when Fulham went back to being semi-professional in 2003, it lost a dozen players. This season, only a deal from the internet company Pipex - for the men's and women's Fulham teams - will keep the Ladies financially afloat, and Spacey has had to rebuild her team from scratch with younger players. Manchester United and Leeds United, meanwhile, stopped all funding and support for their women's teams this year. For Leeds, cash-strapped all round, this may be understandable. But for the richest club in the world? "I reckon it's because they wanted to be the best, and they weren't," one disgruntled fan tells me. "So rather than wait, they just stopped."

"You look at what Sky invests in the Premiership," says Kenny McCallum of Umbro, the kit provider for the England women's team, "and that's a long way off in the women's game." Nationwide sponsors the national team. Arsenal includes the ladies in its O2 sponsorship. Fulham includes the Ladies in its Dabs and Pipex deals. But the overall calculation is always the same: there's not enough return. Not enough audience, not enough ticket sales, not enough profile. Not yet.

Not even the world-class players - Kelly Smith, Rachel Yankey - have sports agents, though Yankey has direct sponsorship deals with Nike and Umbro. She's the face of the Umbro women's X boot, for example, launched especially for women's feet "because they have different pressure points". Clothing was another problem. "They were wearing men's kit, and it was all a bit baggy," says McCallum. "Now it's more streamlined, more performance-related." The kit is also sold commercially. So there must be a market for it? "Not really. It has potential, but for now ..."

"It's not about money," says Arsenal star Sanderson. "But it makes the world go round, y'know?" Neither Akers nor Spacey will comment on how much each player gets paid in match-appearance fees, but it's little more than expenses. Arsenal gets round this by employing eight of its players at the club, but others just struggle. "We train twice a week," says Asante. "Then I train alone another two or three times. I probably get one day off a week. I work my college assignments around my training, and I have no social life." So what's the point? She looks puzzled. "This is what I want to do. I'm going to go as far as I can."

Asante was lucky. There was a girls' football team at her school, and she was scouted for Arsenal at 14. "Looking back, I can see it was a big deal, but I knew nothing about women's football, it was just a hobby." White started playing for a boys' team, because there was no other option, and happened to go to a training session where the coach was a woman and thought she was good enough for trials. "I was lucky," she says. "There are so many more barriers for girls playing football."

These aren't just financial. Leaning on the f railing at the Arsenal match, Luisa Gottardo, 18, tells a familiar tale. "I used to knock about in the park, but there was nothing at school. There's a team until year seven and then there's nothing. It's rubbish."

"Boys are always saying stuff," adds Keenan. "But if they take the mick, we put them right. Anyway, they're a bit shocked when they see how good girls are." Girls can be their own worst enemies, too. A Nike survey found that a fifth of school-age girls thought playing sport "wasn't cool". Forty per cent were worried about what their bodies looked like in games lessons. Forty per cent of girls drop out of sport by the age of 18.

"It's better than it used to be," says Sanderson. "Before, if you played football, you were supposed to have short hair, and everyone thought you were, you know ..."

It's meant to be better across the Atlantic. Bend it like Beckham was fairly factual fiction, at least according to every amateur and semi-pro at the Arsenal-Fulham match: a college soccer scholarship to the US is still the pot of gold at the end of the female footballer's rainbow. Women's soccer has thrived in the US, says the US Soccer press officer, Aaron Heifetz, "because women are encouraged to play sport here. There's no discrimination." Nor are American players shackled by the domineering, dominating presence of the European and South American men's game, which persists in thinking of women playing soccer as totty playing footie. The US is held up as the pioneer of the women's game, with an Olympic-winning team, a multi-million-dollar superstar in Mia Hamm, and 3.3 million girls and women playing competitively. Ninety-thousand people attended the Women's World Cup final at the vast Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, California. America is how England would like to be. Or so I'm told by everyone except Heifetz. He might still be bruised by his previous job at San Diego Spirit, one of the dozens of professional teams in the Wusa league which, in 2003, simply disbanded when the league overspent, underplanned and went bust.

Even in the golden dreamscape of American soccer, college teams play for only three months of the year. The replacement for Wusa, the W League, plays only in the summer. The rest of the time there's nothing.

Even so, the future of football is supposed to be female, if Fifa president Sepp Blatter's sweeping comment, made in 1999 after the World Cup, is to be believed. Women's football is the future, he told a Strasbourg conference, because it's played by nicer people. No egos, no agents, no arrogance. The Fifa delegate Keith Cooper added: "Women footballers do not necessarily have dollar signs in mind. They are ambassadors for the sport, not just themselves."

If Sanderson, White and Asante are anything to go by, England's current ambassadors are a fine antidote to the hooliganism, arrogance and cynicism of the men's game. "We want to be known for what we do on the pitch," says Sanderson. "Not be like the men who are known for what they do off it." And if the world has any sense, it'll start watching.

England's first match of the Women's Euro 2005, against Finland, is at the City of Manchester Stadium on 5 June. Coverage starts on BBC2 at 6.40pm. For tickets see www.thefa.com/euro2005