She's won the battle with the dinosaurs, but not the war

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The Independent Online
Don't get the champagne out yet, and keep the 21-gun salute on hold. The Professional Footballers Association has announced that it intends to appeal against last week's court judgement that to ban Rachel Anderson, Britain's only female football agent, from its men-only annual dinner was in breach of the Sex Discrimination Act. What is being hailed as a victory for sexual equality in sport may yet turn out to be Pyrrhic.

Mrs Anderson's agency carried a Fifa licence - the sport's international kitemark - and the 30-odd players on her books include Julian Dicks (formerly of Liverpool and West Ham), Michael Hughes of Wimbledon and Everton's Don Hutchison. She is widely regarded as smart, witty, direct, honourable and highly competent. These qualities, which immediately set her apart from one or two of her male counterparts, nevertheless have twice failed to gain her a seat to watch the cream of the game crown one of its own as Footballer of the Year.

Her opening skirmish with the PFA was in 1997 when, after arriving as the guest of several of the Sheffield United players she represents, she was escorted from London's Grosvenor House Hotel. She brought her case after being told that, despite having been invited by Dicks, she was unwelcome at the function the following year. She was supported in her action by Tony Blair, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the TUC.

Mrs Anderson's response to winning the case is that she hopes to be going to next year's bash and that she "can't wait to buy the PFA a drink". She may have to stand at the bar waving her money for some time. Remember how long it took women to breach the walls at the MCC. Although a handful of females have been admitted and the sky has not fallen in over the Long Room as a result, the majority of women who have applied for membership are still waiting, having merely had their names tacked on to a list as long as the Australian bowler Glenn McGrath's run-up.

Whilst Mrs Anderson's description of the PFA dinner as a "premier football event" might be contested, her right to be there is beyond doubt, as is her assertion that to bar her from the dinner was "totally illogical, not to mention ignorant". Logic and wisdom, however, may have a hard fight against the PFA's low cunning and threats to move the goalposts. On hearing that Judge Brian Knight QC had blown for a foul against them, the organisation issued a statement indicating that it might change the nature of the dinner in order to keep Mrs Anderson from getting her feet under the table.

They have, it claims, "a male-only policy because there are no female professional footballers". This calls to mind what happened last century when homosexuality was made illegal but lesbians escaped because Queen Victoria was unable to extend her imagination to encompass what women might get up to together.

There is, of course, a vast amount of female football going on, although it is true that in this country women play for love, not money. Around the world, however, the game is enjoying dramatic and lucrative growth. There have been professional female footballers in Italy and the Scandinavian countries since the 1980s. Earlier this year, the Women's World Cup in the US was a huge event which played to packed stadiums as well as big and enthusiastic television audiences across the world. American women players receive generous salaries, college scholarships and sponsorship deals. Even in Britain, following the Football Association's establishment of its women's section, the sport is attracting serious attention after years of mirth. In schools, girls line up to play football, not hockey and lacrosse.

Withholding admission on the grounds that there are no female professional footballers in Britain is not the end of the PFA's modernity by-pass. Following last week's case, the organisation has repeated its defence that it limits numbers at the dinner to 1,000 and that if women were to be invited, this "would require a dining facility larger than the largest London hotel and significantly change the nature of the event". If the PFA elbowed all the hangers-on and corporate liggers from the invitation list, there would be plenty of room for guests, such as Mrs Anderson, whose professional standing entitles them to be there.

But the PFA is not finished playing on our heartstrings yet. In order, apparently, to "ensure all members have the opportunity to attend", it has had to subsidise the event itself, as well as obtaining additional funds from sponsors. As a result of the Anderson case, it pleads, sponsorship of the dinner may have to be reduced, thereby putting up the cost to members. A truly bleak prospect for men on pounds 15,000 a week.

Football oldies such as Jimmy Hill may claim that the ban is to protect females from the boisterousness of the occasion - clearly he has not gatecrashed any hen nights recently - but there is no need to look too far for what is really behind the PFA's resistance to admitting women to their annual bunfight. Sports such as football and cricket are boltholes for the kind of men who want to get away from women. Unfortunately for them, in the three years since England hosted the European Championship, football has changed spectacularly. A large influx of foreign players, notably from Italy and France, has brought sophistication and cosmopolitan attitudes as well as plenty of fresh ideas for footballers to style their hair. They have dragged English players out of the greasy spoon and into the trattoria. Footballers have joined the middle class. Most tellingly, an increasing number of women consume football. The game wants their money, both as bums on seats and boobs in replica shirts, and grudgingly but inexorably it has accepted women in press boxes and boardrooms.

There is still a way to go. For every man like Julian Dicks, who described the original decision to exclude his agent as "the last whimperings of a dinosaur", there is a Rodney Marsh, the former Queen's Park Rangers player turned satellite TV pundit who not so very long ago asked plaintively: "We don't interfere with their sewing and cooking; why should they interfere in our football?"