It’s all about timing. With exquisite precision, Bend It Like Beckham has scorched into the West End, scoring five-star reviews with its feel-good story about girls playing football.
And lo!, back in the real world, England’s “Lionesses” triumphed over Women's World Cup hosts Canada 2-1 to reach the semi-finals of the tournament for the very first time with a universally acclaimed display of brilliant football.
Is this, then, going to be the watershed moment for the female beautiful game? Will this be the year when women’s football can finally start to be taken seriously? In the musical, heroine Jess sleeps under an Old Trafford duvet cover and has a poster of Beckham (in his Manchester United strip) on her bedroom wall. But after the triumph at Vancouver, can existing role models be overturned? Could it be that young, football-mad girls will pull on their boots dreaming of emulating Lucy Bronze or Jodie Taylor (who both scored against Canada)? Will we see the advent of a Lioness duvet cover?
It would be good if that might happen, and for some women’s and girl’s squads it possibly can. Yet women’s football still has quite a long road to travel before its stars have the same status and global reach as (say) female tennis stars or athletes.
The first hurdle is school sports. If women’s football is going to take off across the UK, it needs to be properly built into girls’ consciousness as part of the sports curriculum, alongside netball and hockey.
In Bend It Like Beckham, Londoner Jess achieves her dream not by playing for the England female squad, but by winning a soccer scholarship to university in America, where they take the women’s game seriously. It’s an entirely accurate observation; I went to secondary school in Massachusetts for a year. There, girls played soccer and softball while boys played American football and baseball.
Then there is the whole issue of being in a team. I know we have a fine national hockey team and women’s cricket has a certain fan base, but it is an uncontestable fact that perhaps because of cultural and social expectations, gifted women in sports seem to do best when they are out there on their own. Beth Tweddle, Paula Radcliffe, Ellie Simmonds – these household names obviously have vast back-up teams, but in the end, theirs has been the glory due to thousands of hours out there solo, whether by slogging it out up and down the pool, training on the bar or running through the countryside. Tennis is a prime example. Wimbledon, which starts today, represents a rare arena where women and men compete for equal prize money and achieve similar column inches. Indeed, as evinced by Andy Murray’s choice of coach, women international tennis players can carry as much weight as their male counterparts.
So, what is the message from the Lionesses’ achievement? Even if they go no further, they have done better than their male counterparts since the World Cup in Italy in 1990. One of the clarion calls ought to be money, and the boost might well alert sponsorship cash. England women’s captain Steph Houghton earns £35,000 a year. Wayne Rooney earns £300,000 a week. Only women at the very top of the game can earn anything like a living wage; Fara Williams, the most-capped female England player of all time, admitted last year that she spent the first six years of her career without earning enough money to buy a home. Clearly, money must be found to boost club football for the women’s game in general to develop.
But, ironically, possibly the greatest message from our brilliant women is for our not-so-glorious men. Perhaps the Lions ought to spend a bit of their down time this summer analysing the skill and determination of the women’s team, who display none of the ghastly petulance, the unearned sense of entitlement or bloated arrogance which seems to be present whenever millionaire Premier League players pull on the England shirt.