It's just like playing Brazil as GB women enter spotlight
Everton keeper Rachel Brown will play a key role against football's most romantic opponents, bringing needed attention to the women's game, says Ian Herbert
Rachel Brown has travelled a fair distance from her earliest taste of fame. She was – still is – the youngest woman to play in an FA Cup final when her Liverpool team contested the 1996 event, and it was some experience: a 15-year-old such as her facing the cameras, and her entire school tuning in live on television.
The name of the broadcaster told the story, though. It was UK Living and "for me it was 'Wow! There's two newspapers who've called," Brown remembers, taking up the story of the event that she juggled with preparations for 10 GCSEs. "It was huge for me, maybe, but more of a novelty then."
Now, at the age of 32, she stands on the brink of an Olympic campaign with the Great Britain side, managed by the same Hope Powell who put a goal past her for Croydon WFC back in that final. And, although the women's game has progressed – enough for Brown to command one of the central contracts which enables her to balance the sport with her part-time secondary school teaching job – it is still struggling to forge a path. The Olympic competition – in which the GB side will launch the entire Games when they face New Zealand in Cardiff eight days from now – is the latest in a series of opportunities to take the big step.
The gulf which remains with the men's game is evident in a myriad of small ways. For instance, the novelty of playing in front of so many supporters that Brown will struggle to hear team-mates – as will be the case when GB play Brazil at a sold-out Wembley, on 31 July. "It's interesting thinking about how the men cope with that level of noise on a game-to-game basis and how hard it must be for them to communicate on the pitch," says Brown, whose only equivalent experience was an exhibition game in front of 60,000 fans in China a few years back.
"My memories of that day are that are I'm shouting and I may as well not be. I thought I had a loud voice until I played in front of 60,000 Chinese people."
The gulf is equally evident in the absence of contact between the men and women players, which will make Friday's back-to-back friendlies at Middlesbrough's Riverside Stadium – the women play Sweden, the men Brazil – unusual. "The men train during the day. We work during the day and train at night so we don't tend to see them," says Brown, one of the few who have made the club move from Liverpool to Everton, via a period of time in the United States. "I've met Everton players through media events but it's not like we ring them up!"
The unvarnished truth about the women's game is that it is still struggling for profitability in most countries bar Scandinavia and Germany, who are ranked second in the world and are many people's favourites for gold. The attendances for England's Women's Super League (WSL) game are not much above reserve-team levels, if that, and in the league's second season, the arenas have been fairly uninspiring. Even Arsenal Ladies, the nation's best, are playing at Borehamwood's ground, while Chelsea are at Staines. The Football Association has taken great strides to help. "The FA investment means we can train more easily, recover more easily and access physio when we want to," Brown says. "The financial support for players is limited but it helps you work part-time rather than full-time which is a huge step." But catching an Olympic dream can help the women's game reach parts that the governing body cannot.
While even the prospect of Arsenal v Chelsea Ladies at the Emirates drew only 5,000 in April, GB v Brazil is a different story, pitching Powell's side up against a nation who play football only as Brazilians can – despite the fact that many of the squad played in the US Women's Professional Soccer game, which cancelled its 2012 season. The one to watch above all is Marta Vieira da Silva, known universally as Marta and the outstanding player in the women's game. Its Lionel Messi, if you will. "In her, they have best player in the world," says Brown. "She's won the world player of the year for the last three years. She rocks up and scores wherever she plays."
Brown's discussion of the opposition suggests that GB – a union of mainly English players, including all-time leading scorer Kelly Smith, back after a stress fracture, plus Scots Ifeoma Dieke and Kim Little – are hoping that group wins over New Zealand and Cameroon will see them into the quarters without the need to take anything from Brazil. The keeper's own path to kick-off against the Kiwis has not been straightforward. The emergence of the US-born Karen Bardsley, who plays her club football in the Swedish women's Damallsvenskan league, has threatened Brown's status as first-choice, leading her to give up her full-time job as a PE teacher to focus on winning it back. Now she works part-time, having started up girl's a football academy at St Julie's High School, Liverpool.
Brown has confounded any doubts about the suitability of her 5ft 7in stature. The question of whether the goalposts should actually be smaller for a women's game cannot be confined to this page. Fittingly, for combatants in a sport which is still fighting hard to find its way, coach Powell's preparations have included taking the women to Tankmania, near their Leicester training base, where they drove an Abbot self-propelled gun tank.
The broader significance of overcoming the next obstacle is huge. "We can be role models for the young girls coming through now," says Brown. "We didn't have that, growing up. You wouldn't have known any women footballer. But we are moving forward and, hopefully, there will be some household names in the next generation."
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