Volley of support for women's game

The ladies' game has gone unheralded, but can the success of England and Kelly Smith in Finland change all that? Glenn Moore thinks so
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The Independent Online

It was a goal to grace any match, but being the decisive goal in a tie England had to win to stay in a major tournament means it will go down in folklore.

In some quarters anyway. But Kelly Smith's goal for England against Russia on Saturday was in the Women's Euro 2009 tournament, not the male equivalent, which meant it was seen only on Eurosport, and not many people were watching. Even YouTube only has a poor quality clip so far.

Nevertheless, Smith's goal underlined the quality in the contemporary women's game. For a long time women's football was hampered by weaknesses in key areas such as goalkeeping and heading which devalued the game. The goalkeeping remains patchy but in every other respect the female game is coming of age. Having belatedly watched a match live and in its entirety last week this observer has been converted to the belief that the ladies' game is worth viewing.

It is hard to avoid being patronising in articles like this, so apologies in advance, but I was impressed, and surprised, by much of the football I saw at Euro 2009 in Finland. Although several England players felt they played badly against Italy there was some excellent play from both sides.

It was a proper football match, albeit played at a significantly slower tempo than the men's game. Pace and strength, though, are not everything, as many spectators at professional men's matches this weekend, including Premier League games, will agree. For a start it means the ball is played on the ground more often.

Smith, though troubled by a gammy knee, stood out. The US-based 30-year-old is clearly a class act as her goal against Russia underlined. Having controlled the goalkeeper's clearance on her instep she volleyed in from the edge of the centre circle. Admittedly the Russian keeper will not want to see it again – but there can be no faulting the bravery of England's Rachel Brown, or the agility of Italy's Anna Picarelli.

Nor is there any doubting the players' commitment. Millwall Lionesses, of the FA Tesco Women's Premier League, each pay £380 a year to cover kit, transport, and other things. Smith's commitment was expressed in her willingness to have pain-killing injections to play this week. "I'm playing through a little bit of pain but it's worth it for this," she said. "Playing at this level for your country, you are willing to do anything." It could be John Terry talking.

There is a lack of depth, and much of the domestic game is poor. This will change, for the sport is growing quickly, especially if the FA back the planned semi-pro summer league.

The women's game will never be as fast, athletic or powerful as the men's, even when the talent pool grows and increased funding allows players to train more, but why should that be a problem? No one suggests Jessica Ennis's world championship gold is invalid because men do not compete in the heptathlon.

Finland's most prominent female player, Anne Makinen, said before the tournament: "I wish people would stop comparing the men's and women's game. They don't do that in other sports. It's important to accept women's football on its own terms."

Pia Sundhage, who coached the US to Olympic gold, added: "If you truly love football you will enjoy both the men's and women's game."

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