Never mind what gender of human scored the goal, the thing stood on its own merits. A loose ball gathered in midfield, the purposeful advance towards the opponent’s goal, the shimmy to beat the defender and the right-foot shot into the bottom corner amounted to a first-class sporting spectacle and absorbed this observer, irrespective of gender.
The basic conditions of great sport were met: equally matched teams playing before a huge audience with a vested interest on an elite stage. Hey presto, you have something worth watching.
Comparisons with the men’s game are irrelevant, since women are playing against each other. It might even be a different sport. That is not important. Critical mass is rooted in the quality of the competition, and this World Cup has provided great drama. It is a pity that the event must carry the differentiator “Women’s” in the title. It would appear men got here first.
So England advance to the semi-finals for the first time. It cannot be a coincidence that this development is a consequence of the infrastructure gains made in the domestic game. As the professionalisation of women’s football in England has advanced, the quality has improved. One day, the penny might drop at Manchester United. The failure of the nation’s biggest football brand to embrace female participation looks ever more like an own goal.
Women are engaged in a broad cultural movement to encourage the sisterhood to get involved in sport as a matter of course. Too many young girls are simply socialised out of participation. The cultural role models calling to women from the front covers of magazines are not dressed in football or rugby kits.
Body confidence is a huge issue for girls and young women who might not conform to the idealised projections of femininity. Sporting charity Street Games, an organisation dedicated to taking sport to disadvantaged areas, discovered a reluctance in young women to pursue team sports for a fear of being judged.
They were holding themselves back because there were no established protocols and too few role models out there telling them there was nothing to fear, that girls of all shapes and sizes can run around profitably after a ball.
I should imagine the queue of primary school girls wanting to be Jodie Taylor or Lucy Bronze is a little longer this morning after the quarter-final triumph against hosts Canada. In other sports, women are further down the line, for example athletics and tennis, where excellence has a long history. And no one gives our golden girls on bikes, in the pool, on track etc a beating because they are not producing the times of men.
Even then the problem is exposure. The greatest catalyst to engagement in athletics is, of course, the Olympic Games, but blanket coverage over two weeks every four years is never going to drive numbers as it might were athletics fed into the home three or four times a week for nine months like football.
Tennis, too, gets the football treatment only once a year in this country. Over the next fortnight our screens and newspapers will be full of Marias, Serenas, Anas and Eugenies, all offering substantial inducements for women to get involved. Yes there will be the inevitable grumble about equality of coin earned. As a rule, for women’s sport to generate the same level of economic activity it requires the same level of exposure. Sponsors are not going to pay to be associated with sports that cannot be seen. Women are visible at the Grand Slams in tennis and thus justify the big numbers.
In football the male of the species has had a free run for the past 150 years. We are in the early chapters in the narrative of the women’s game. Imagine how different the world of women’s football might look when we are commemorating the World Cup centenary in 2091. My guess would be that England’s women might be celebrating more than one success. Who could say with confidence the same for our men?
The run to the semi-final has brought with it growing interest, to a point where the success of our women is a prominent feature of the news cycle. Who could identify beforehand the opposition in England’s first group match? Indeed, who can recall the details?
Now, there is a fair chance a few of you know that Japan stand between England and a shot at global hegemony. Some can probably tell you that the women in blue are the defending champions. Thus we are becoming immersed in the detail of the game, learning about its rhythms and its characters.
Before you know it we will be buying tickets to watch our girls in a club environment, deepening our bond with the women’s game and seeing it as a thing in itself, not an approximation to the stuff men do.Reuse content