Did you know there's an England football match tomorrow, an important qualifier for a global tournament? For once, there's every reason to feel optimistic about our side's chances. The England players are on form after making the finals of the European Championships last year, appear to get along with each other without sleeping with each other's spouses, and, miraculously, not a word has been printed in the press about hookers, roastings, the demotivating effects of a £40,000-a-day pay packet or cheeky late-night packs of red Marlboro. So are football fans everywhere eagerly supporting their bid for glory? Are they balls.
The trouble with this particular England team is to be found inside their baggy white shorts; they're women. To even the most liberal-minded fan, the idea of a human being without a Y chromosome dribbling a ball down a football pitch is nothing short of preposterous. Despite the fact that football is now the most popular participation sport among British girls, top players still contend with a level of condescension and segregation no female tennis star endures.
This should be a happy moment for women's football in this country. Next year the FA will launch a dedicated Super League for the women's game and a handful of the best players will finally be salaried professionals, albeit on a meaner wage than Rooney or Torres. ESPN will screen the league's matches. If England win in Switzerland tomorrow, they will go to the World Cup in Germany next year. Yet mention the sport to most men and you may as well suggest they spend an evening watching uphill rollerblading.
What exactly is the case against this sport? It is a little slower than Premiership football, for sure, but then so are golf and cricket; as in women's tennis, the participants lack the pace of their male equivalents. I watched the first part of the England qualifier on BBC3 on Sunday. In case you didn't catch it, England won - not brilliantly, I grant you, but fairly, and notably without any of the faux-dramatics employed in every single men's match you'll see. But the negative perception of the game is wildly exaggerated. Try as I might, though, I couldn't get any of my usually footie-obsessed male friends to show a flicker of interest in the game. Most looked at me blankly. C'mon, guys, these players look aggressive, they want to win, they're super-fit and did I point out how nice and bouncy their pony tails are?
Which brings us to the second criticism of women's football: that the players are too masculine-looking and probably lesbians, as if the allure of a woman in mud-splattered shorts had never been explored in movies like Bend It Like Beckham and, before that, Gregory's Girl.
Tomorrow our best women players will have enough to worry about without trying to also look sexy and straight for the hordes of overweight football fans who dismiss them as inferior athletes but could never hope to reach their level of fitness or technique. If they win in Wohlen, an important battle will be won, for there's no arguing with a scoreline, as they say.
The victim/sympathy ratio revealed
If you are collecting charity donations for a natural disaster, don't mention the tens of thousands who are suffering; pick out one victim and tell their story. Of course that is exactly what the marketing teams for major charities have done for years, hence the numerous heart-rending tales told about a single victim of child abuse/drunk driving/passive smoking.
Much is written about human empathy, and we all have one or two friends who appear to be utter strangers to the feeling, but few of us understand how it actually works. Now a scientific study has confirmed that our capacity to feel others' pain has firm boundaries. And it's bad news for class-action lawsuits: psychologist Loran Nordgren of Northwestern University examined American jury verdicts over the past decade and discovered that the more victims there were in a case, the less harshly the perpetrator of the crime was punished. Jurors found it harder to remain engaged with a crime that affected many people, and let the perpetrators off more lightly than when faced with a case that had fewer or a single victim. We can put ourselves in one person's shoes, but show us a dozen pairs and even the biggest hearts quickly lose interest.
A beard is no longer weird
No longer the unique "look" of imams, Father Christmas and fishermen, beards are now hotter than ever, according to the style magazines. They've been sprouting from hipster chins for a while, but now prickly cheeks are growing rampantly. Autumn's edition of GQ Style dedicates numerous pages to a feature on the "Modern Beard", stating that "the beard signals not just a rejection of social convention, but also a profound self-possession". To be clean-shaven, it says, is to be stuck in the metrosexual age of waxing and tanning and caring just a bit too much about one's appearance (unlike spending hours trimming and combing a statement beard, which is simply practical.)
The cover of biannual personal-style glossy The Gentlewoman goes one step further, with a portrait of female fashion photographer Inez Van Lamsweerde posing in a fake beard. Truly, one must be a rebel to wear a beard, which is why Joaquin Phoenix has one, and Nick Clegg doesn't. But this follicular trend has its natural limits. At moments of great gravity or sensitivity, when one needs to see the flicker of expression in a face, a great bushy beard does rather distract. This trend might see our actors and musicians discover their inner Samson, but will we ever be able to accept a bearded newsreader, dentist, celebrity chef or, heaven forbid, prime minister?