Why the girls must escape the ghetto

WOMEN'S PARTICIPATION in sport is probably more visible at this time of year than at any other. The involvement may vary from a walk-on part at Ascot, where a woman's place is in the hat, to a full-blooded, snarling confrontation on centre stage at Wimbledon, but it is difficult to ignore them, even if one was inclined to.

Yet, here we stand at the very peak of the British sporting summer and most of us seem totally unaware that we have reached the last day of Women's Football Awareness Week. You would be forgiven for asking why women should be in the least aware of football at this searingly untopical point of the calendar, but the week in question is specifically to do with women's football and coincides with the Women's World Cup, which kicked off in the United States yesterday.

This is another event to which we are offering the cold shoulder of indifference. It might be different if any of our teams had qualified, but they didn't and thereupon our interest ceased. It is a fault for which we have been severely chided as typical of our insularity on the one hand and of our general disdain for women's sport on the other.

The old bandwaggoner himself, the Minister for Sport, Tony Banks, was to be found giving this theme a polish at the launch of Women's Football Awareness Week which has been organised by the Football Association to attract women and girls to try football for the first time. Banks broadened the subject to women's sport as a whole and said that issues of sexual equality needed urgently to be addressed or women's sport would never prosper.

Sport is excessively male- dominated in this country, he said, and this applied to everyone concerned, including those who report on it. We shall return later to this part of a speech that also took issue with the lack of promotion of women's football. He'd attended both the women's FA Cup final in May and the championship finale and they were fairly low-key events.

This was in sharp contrast to the interest shown in the United States for the World Cup. It is already assured of being the biggest women's sporting event in history. Over 77,000 watched the American team play Denmark in the inaugural game at the Giants Stadium yesterday and 98,000 are expected to attend the final at the Rose Bowl, Pasedena, on 10 July if the home team are involved.

These figures, plus the fact that more than seven million women play soccer in America, are very impressive but I question Banks' assessment that this popularity is due to more effective promotion and to US laws which dictate equal funding for men and women.

There is a marked difference in the attitudes of the two countries towards football. Over here, as he so rightly points out, it is male dominated and unsurprisingly so. Furthermore, our appetite is of long vintage and we like to watch football of the highest possible standard and tend to ignore football of a lower standard whether it is played by men or women. That's not sexist, it's footballist.

What is happening in the US is entirely different. As many would-be missionaries have learned to their cost over the past 30 years or so, Americans have developed a stubborn resistance to the wonders of football despite the presence of the greatest players of all time. Pele, George Best, Johan Cruyff... admittedly, many of those they imported to get the game off the ground were near the end of their careers but not even that assembly of the highest skills, nor the presence of the 1992 World Cup finals, could spread any lasting passion for the game among hardcore sports fans.

But football struck a spark among the women, especially the mothers who recognised a sporting activity they'd be happy for their sons to play. Football flourished among the young and, helped by the far more advanced attitudes to sports in their schools and colleges, has now captivated the women. The fact that they have been successful, and play with an attractive style, has further helped to intrigue the country.

But this is not a triumph for the US, this is a triumph for football and far from berating us for not doing enough to encourage women's football, both the Government and the FA should be examining the obvious steps they could take to hasten the development of women's football.

Unaided, the sport has already blossomed during the past decade. There were 80 adult female teams in 1990 but there are now 1,000 with 34,000 women playing regularly. That improvement could turn into a boom if the Government were to reverse the slump in the time and interest schools devote to sport but their latest decision to remove the compulsion for pupils over 14 to play a team sport will not help.

Girls should not only be encouraged to play games like football, they should be allowed to play alongside boys beyond the age of 11 which is the point at which the FA refuses to permit mixed football. It is an irony that the FA themselves should be hindering the development of girls' football, the standards of which would undoubtedly improve if they were allowed to play in the same teams as boys until they were much older.

Women have made substantial sporting improvement in recent years and have the potential to go much further but separate development is their greatest handicap. Sportspeople respond to competing at higher levels and, since the standard of men's sport is generally higher, that's where women must aspire to compete.

My view that women will one day play international football alongside men usually attracts derision but I'm convinced of it. The evolution will take generations but the quicker women are encouraged to escape from their sporting ghettos the quicker they will reach true equality.

TODAY WE see the climax of a tournament that has lavished upon us equal portions of great excitement and utter confusion. If the cricket World Cup final between Australia and Pakistan is half as thrilling as Thursday's semi-final we will forgive and forget its imperfections, but I fear we could be in for a messy end.

If the threatened rain arrives, the final will proceed into tomorrow and, if necessary, into Tuesday. If that happens, Pakistani supporters may buckle under the strain of a 72-hour wait to make their pitch invasion.

But an even worse scenario would occur if the match ends in a tie. Absurdly, the two teams would then share the title. After nearly six weeks in which the event has been dominated by the mathematical mayhem of the run-rate, the organisers have been unable to work out a simple formula for deciding which finalist had performed better in the event of them both scoring the same number of runs.

Most people have been arguing so vehemently about the semi-final mix- up between Lance Klusener and Allan Donald - I'm a Donald-blamer myself - they forget that the match was tied at that stage and that South Africa needed the extra run because Australia had a superior run-rate from previous matches. I would have thought that for a match of that importance what happened on the day should take precedence and if Klusener had batted out the over South Africa deserved to win by having reached the total with the loss of one fewer wicket.

But to abandon suddenly all those vulgar fractions in the final in favour of a non-decision if the scores are level is ludicrous. They'd be better off popping up to Wembley for a penalty shoot-out.

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