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Women boldly go where no men have been of late

Mike Rowbottom met up with England's female footballers at the start of their World Cup campaign
It is a pleasantly sunny afternoon at Bisham Abbey. England's footballers - Alan Shearer, David Platt, that platinum blond - are training for the Umbro Cup under the gaze of the media. Suddenly, one of the television cameramen receives a raucous request: "We're over here, Amos!" And Amos swings his lens round obligingly to the neighbouring pitch, where a group of women in shorts have gathered around a figure with a microphone.

"You can forget about the Umbro Trophy," the figure announces, "because our women's team are off to Sweden to compete in their first-ever World Cup finals." But for all that good-natured rhetoric, the British public's attention is not remotely likely to follow the same arc as Amos's camera. The women in question, however, were investing no less effort than their feted male counterparts to prepare for a tournament that could earn them unprecedented attention.

England, one of 12 teams taking part in the tournament in Sweden over the next fortnight, have their opening match against Canada tonight in Helsingborg. They then face a match against the Group B favourites, Norway, whose supporters will form the majority of a sell-out crowd of 6,500.

We are not talking the Maracana Stadium here. We are not even talking Griffin Park. But for England's players, that kind of attendance represents the big time. When they reached the European Championship semi-final last year, their home leg against Germany at Watford was watched by just 937 people. Norway will be tough to beat, but England have realistic expectations against Canada and the other group members, Nigeria.

If England are successful it will be against the odds. Unlike increasing numbers of their opponents, their players are amateurs. Debbie Bampton, the captain, is taking time off from her job driving MPs to and from the Houses of Parliament. Pauline Cope, one of the goalkeepers, is taking temporary leave of her job as a butler serving dinners to directors at a City merchant bank.

The Football Association's decision to take over their running from the women's FA two years ago - still a matter of bitterness in some quarters - has hardly transformed matters from a commercial point of view. England's women will go into this tournament without a sponsor.

Last week there were scenes of delight at the hotel in Maidenhead as new kit was handed out: "We were all excited to get new kit and tracksuits that we could keep for ourselves," the Arsenal forward, Marieanne Spacey, said.

England's squad of 20 players have had five days together in Sweden before their first match. It feels like luxury. But their hosts have spent the last two months playing tournaments in preparation. Canada and Japan have done likewise. The United States, the defending champions, have been in a training camp since January, with all jobs secured and salaries paid for out of a reported budget of $1.25m (pounds 785,000). "We can't compete with that," said Ted Copeland, who was appointed by the the FA as manager two years ago. He combines his role with the job as director of coaching for the North of England.

Copeland was given a verbal roughing up by some of the team's more committed followers. Was it coincidental that the newly appointed captain, Bampton, was accompanied by five fellow members of Croydon, even though they were not a Premier League side?

"There is only one person who picks the team and that's. . ." Well, you know the rest. Why had Kirsty Pealling and the highly talented Joanne Broadhurst been left out, to general surprise? "They are not international footballers at this level."

Why was Gillian Coulthard, capped a record 80 times, relieved of the captaincy immediately after the recent Channel 4 documentary on her success- laden club side, Doncaster Belles? Did the scenes of nightclub jollifications influence his decision? "The reasons are between Gill and I."

For now, however, the dissensions appear to have been subsumed for the general good. England's women are in the World Cup. They are shooting for the quarter-finals. And from there on in, as any self-respecting football person will tell you. . . well, you know the rest.