Fotball: England take long-term view

Pete Davies says the national women's team are planning well ahead

Gillian Coultard of the Doncaster Belles will doubtless be richly satisfied with her record 99th cap for England against Norway in Lillestrom this morning, but she has a way to go yet to catch her opponents' captain Heidi Storer. If Storer plays, her 148th international appearance will be a new world record for men or women.

Norway, the current world champions, are likely to give England's women, in the famous words of that Oslo commentator, "a hell of a beating". On the back of two thrashings from America's Olympic champions last month - 5-0 in San Jose, 6-0 in Portland - another pounding would be further proof that, in the women's game, England remains a distinctly second-tier nation.

This autumn, however, they face the toughest possible qualifying group for the third Women's World Cup in the United States in 1999. Drawn against both Norway and Germany, the chances of progress are slender to vanishing. In light of that, the Football Association are to be commended for investing in so challenging a programme of away games now. England may not win but they can learn - and for a number of promising young players coming through, the experience will be invaluable.

While the senior team may struggle in the World Cup qualifiers, an Under- 18 side is to be established to contest Uefa's new championship at that level, and their prospects look bright. Players like Susan Smith from Tranmere, and the keepers Rachael Brown and Sarah Reed (Liverpool and Arsenal respectively) will go into that side having already played against the best in the world at senior level.

They don't come better than America or Norway. Both sides are quick, strong, and fiercely athletic; the women's game in both countries is streets ahead. While England are lucky if a home international draws more than 1,000, the crowd in San Jose was 17,500, and the little college stadium in Poland - capacity 5,500 - was sold out.

As for Norway, 50,000 women play the game regularly there - two and a half times as many as play here, from a population of 4,000,000 - and they are as popular as the men. When they won the World Cup in Sweden two years ago, beating Germany 2-0, one third of the population tuned in to watch them do it. Asked why the women's game is so successful in Scandinavia, their manager Even Pellerud said simply: "Because the Nordic countries very early respected women. We are much more even between the sexes."

Unlike England's manger Ted Copeland, Pellerud gets to do his job full- time. In this and many other regards, England have a long way to go to catch up, as the game today will very likely prove. Last time the two countries met, in a first-round game at the World Cup in Sweden, the Norwegians won 2-0, and the traffic was strictly one way. England had Millwall's keeper Pauline Cope to thank for a heroic performance that prevented the score being considerably more embarrassing, and she'll doubtless be busy again today.

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