Germany again – but don't mention the men

The coach of the England women's football team is in a positive mood as she prepares to face the old enemy in a World Cup qualifying match
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The Burnham Beeches Hotel, Buckinghamshire. Monday, 12.45pm. The England football coach is giving a press conference ahead of tomorrow's difficult World Cup qualifier against Germany. There are heaps of egg, prawn, cheese and tuna sandwiches in the room but only five journalists, which is one way of telling that it is the England women's football coach, Hope Powell, being questioned, rather than her male counterpart, Sven Goran Eriksson.

Even so, an audience of five still seems a little feeble. Especially as one of the five knows next to nothing about women's football. Afterwards, Powell gently upbraids me for not asking anything during the press conference. But what would I have asked? Imagine the nation's football correspondents quizzing Eriksson on the severity of David Beckham's groin strain, and then some plonker at the back saying "ahem, Sven, could you tell me a bit more about this David Beckham? Which club does he play for?" I think Powell takes this on board.

She can only spare me 20 minutes, which is slightly irksome. I consider making the prima donna-ish and yet not wholly invalid point that Gérard Houllier and Bobby Robson, to name but two Premiership managers I have interviewed, managed to dig out more than an hour from their similarly busy schedules. But 20 minutes later I'm glad I let this pass. Powell gets a trifle tetchy when people suggest, even obliquely, that the men's game is more meaningful. Not to her it's not. As I learn when I ask whether, as she prepares to take her girls to Germany, she draws much inspiration from the men's unforgettable 5-1 victory in Munich.

"You come in, you don't know much about women's football, and you talk about the men," she says. "I know what the men have done, but it's done. Does it get on my nerves when people go on about the men? Yeah, if I'm honest. I watched them play Germany, and I'm really chuffed that they're well on their way, but I'm just interested in the women's game. I'm passionate about it."

Heaven knows, women's football needs as much passion as it can get, and, indeed, one of my better-informed press colleagues tells me that 34-year-old Powell has done much to reinvigorate it since she was appointed the national coach in 1998. Early last century, oddly enough, women's football needed no such boost. During the First World War, with so many men away at the Western Front, it caught on in a big way. And on Boxing Day 1920, a team called Dick, Kerr Ladies – formed from the workforce of a factory in Preston – played against St Helens Ladies at Goodison Park, in front of a crowd of more than 53,000.

Apparently, this put the wind right up the Football Association, so much so that a year later a stern edict was issued, which read: "Complaints having been made as to football being played by women, the Council feel impelled to express their strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged... the Council request clubs belonging to the Association to refuse the use of their grounds for such matches."

With this burst of chauvinism, the development of women's football was halted at a stroke. Even more shockingly, the FA did not lift the ban until 1970, and not until 1972 was an official England team established. By 1984, however, the national side were good enough to reach the final of the first European Championship – which they lost on penalties to Sweden at Kenilworth Road, Luton.

Playing for her country that day was a 17-year-old from Greenwich called Hope Powell, but never during her subsequent career – in which, as an elegant midfield player, she won 66 caps and scored 35 international goals – did England again scale such heights. Instead, women's football in Britain rather lost the plot, while in America precisely the opposite happened.

From nothing, the Americans built an infrastructure and with it a team who won the World Cup twice in the 1990s. In 1999, when the United States beat China in the final, the crowd in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, including President Clinton, was a capacity 90,000.

This April, the inaugural game in the world's first professional league for women, in Washington DC, drew a crowd of 34,000. Moreover, women's football in America has plainly inspired the men's game: even now, there are men in Major League Soccer who celebrate goals by lifting up their shirts to reveal bras, in homage to Brandi Chastain's celebrated burst of exhibitionism during that 1999 final.

The three best national teams in women's football are the Americans, the Chinese and the Germans, with the English still engaged in a desperate game of catch-up. Which brings us once more to tomorrow's match in Kassel, the opening qualifier for the 2003 World Cup. If they are to win it, Powell's girls must set light to the history books even more dramatically than the chaps (sorry to mention the chaps again) did in Munich. In the circumstances, Hope is a cracking name for the England manager to have – "it was the bane of my life when I was growing up, but now I quite like it," she says.

For England's record against Germany is, to say the least, unimpressive – played 11, won 0, drawn 0, lost 11. So, can they win? Can Powell, who incidentally holds the top Uefa coaching qualification, echo the achievements of Sve... oh, never mind. "It will be hard," she says. "But defensively the units work very well. Everyone knows their job, and going forward Kelly Smith [widely considered to be England's best player] brings something a bit different. It's about getting the ball into that third to exploit our strengths. But the Germans are a very good outfit. We don't struggle technically against them, but physically we do. They're much bigger than us. In fact, some of them are built a bit like men.

"But they're also very mobile. Prinz, the wide player, is very quick. And their goalkeeper is very good. And the girl in the centre of the park... I can't remember her name." It is difficult to imagine Sven Goran Eriksson forgetting the name of, say, Dietmar Hamann, yet there is no doubt that Powell has done her homework. Nor does she need any encouragement to beat the Germans, having played on the receiving end of several of those 11 defeats. "I played when they beat us 6-4 in England, although we were 4-0 down at half-time, and at one stage we got it back to 5-4."

Germany last beat England – 3-0 – in this summer's European Championship. However, Powell truly believes that the balance of power is undergoing its first slight tilt. The FA has recently established a National Women's Player Development Centre at Loughborough University, its aim to identify and develop players "with the aim of winning the World Cup in 2007". So the infrastructure is growing, and as Powell also coaches England's under-17s and under-19s, she enjoys a unique perspective on the talent coming through.

"I've got a bigger pool to pick from now," she says. "And we've got dedicated medical people, dedicated marketing people. So it's moving in the right direction, although we've still got some way to go. I've got 20 scouts, but that's not enough." There is, moreover, only one professional women's team in England, namely Fulham. So apart from those who play for Fulham, or in America as Kelly Smith does, or who work for their clubs as some of the Arsenal Ladies do, the England players have full-time jobs well away from football. Tara Proctor, the 30-year-old England captain, works in catering. And Proctor missed last month's friendly against Denmark because, erm, she was on holiday. "She had booked her holiday before the friendly was organised," Powell explains. Oh, and she did spend some of her time on a Greek island anxiously text-messaging home to see how the girls had got on. But even so, the episode did not exactly fit into the Brave New World that Powell is trying to build.

On the other hand, after so many decades of FA neglect and even downright antagonism, women's football was never likely to flourish overnight.

It is a long, slow process, but already the older players in the game report that things have changed beyond recognition. The Doncaster Belles veteran Karen Walker, for example, has recalled that when she started playing international football, players were warned that if they swapped shirts after a game they would have to pay for a replacement. And Powell takes me even further back, to when she was a kid kicking a ball about on the streets of Greenwich.

"I was as good if not better than most of the boys, but I honestly thought I was the only girl who played football," she says. "I was amazed when I found out that there was another girl at my school who played, and that she played for a team. So when I was 11 I joined Millwall Lionesses. Organised games, with two proper goals, and a referee... it was fantastic."

She was capped for England at 16, and considers that, and winning the 1995-96 league and cup double, with Croydon, to have been her most cherished experiences as a player. As a coach, the highlight so far was England's 2-0 victory over Ukraine at Brisbane Road, the home of Leyton Orient. That was the second leg of a qualifier for this year's European Championship, England having also won in Kiev, 2-1. And not least of the pleasures for Powell was the attendance, officially 7,102 but unofficially quite a bit more, she reckons. Besides, even 7,102 was 3,089 more than turned up three days earlier to watch Orient, third in the Third Division at the time, against Macclesfield. Small beer when compared with attendance figures in the United States, but progress, nevertheless.

Seasoned observers of both men's and women's football reckon that the women's game is comparable as a spectacle, too. There are those who snidely assert that the world champions, America, would be soundly beaten by, say, an average team in the English Nationwide Conference. But this is not so much a moot point as a pointless point. The game is fundamentally different.

For instance, with the retirement from international football of Arsenal's Marieanne Spacey, England have lost the one player capable of hitting a 40-yard pass, or scoring from a 35-yard free-kick. As for Powell, she says: "Of course the men's game is more physical, and the pace much quicker. But I think you see more skill in women's football, because it is slower."

My 20 minutes are nearly up. So I brave one more question about the chaps. Will she, prior to tomorrow's game, expect a good-luck message from Sven Goran Eriksson? "I don't know," she says. "He sent us a message of support before the European Championship, which was very nice of him. And everyone at the FA is very supportive. But to be fair, I don't send Sven a message of support when he's got a game, so I don't see why he should send me one." There's no arguing with that, I reflect, as I leave the hotel, although not before helping myself to one or two of the several dozen remaining sandwiches.

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