I watched the entirety (extra time as well) of the recent quarter-final match of the Women’s Euros between England and Spain at Brighton’s new ground. On television I ought to add, not in person, though the Amex Stadium looked full and was certainly rocking. So it should. It was a cracking game that England should have lost, truth be told, but somehow the home team prevailed, spurred on by a noisy and partisan crowd. The roars were of a higher pitch than we are used to in the men’s game, indication thereof a greater proportion of females, particularly young girls, among the spectators, whichin itself ought to have been a source of gratification for the champions of the women’s game.
I did not watch the match expecting to be disdainful of the fare on view yet slowly getting seduced by the drama unfolding. Oh no, I was not at all surprised. I am no late convert to women’s football. My Damascene moment happened some 40 years ago. I was on a year’s teaching exchange in the US. To my surprise, I was assigned to an all-girls’ school and the major game in the autumn (sorry, fall) term (sorry, semester) was football (sorry, soccer). I looked after the Freshmen team, a term which slightly took me aback. First, why weren’t they called Freshwomen? And secondly, I thought only first-year undergraduates at university were called ‘freshmen’, or ‘freshers’. I soon came to the realisation that Americans tend to take themselves very seriously, especially if they are in any way connected to education and academia. Second year girls were known as ‘sophomores’, for heaven’s sake, and all my colleagues had more letters after their names than you could shake a stick at. My insignificant B.A. seemed paltry in comparison. However, as I was a Brit, and had played a bit of ‘sawker’ in my younger days, I was asked to look after the Juniors.
Pretty soon, one by one, my preconceptions fell away. The girls were enthusiastic, energetic, surprisingly knowledgeable, keen to learn and possessed no little skill. As for being a little bit ‘girly’ in the tackle…. not a bit of it. Challenging for the ball was as robust as in any boys’ game. They were fiercely competitive too; victory was wildly celebrated and enthusiastically acclaimed, and defeat occasioned a despondency that took a while to wear off. Whenever I could, I took the opportunity of watching the Seniors and I was deeply impressed by the standard of play. They were athletic, fit, well-drilled and played a passing game that was as pleasing on the eye as it was effective. One girl stood out. She played on the left-wing and would have strolled into Malvern College’s 1st XI. Her control, her speed, her positional awareness and the power of her shooting took the breath away. I wish I could have hidden her in my suitcase, taken her back to England, put her in the Malvern Eleven and let her loose against the likes of Eton, Repton and Shrewsbury. Sadly, in the 1980s, Malvern was still a single-sex school.
Sadly, too, on my return to England, I discovered that women’s football enjoyed nothing like the profile that it had in the US. In vain, I searched for news on the sports pages or information about any televised coverage. I came to the conclusion that the women’s game over here suffered from an image crisis. Ladies simply didn’t play football; those who did were decidedly butch and very working-class. I am sure that this was not really the case but that was the perception of the sporting public.
Of course, all is different now, but I do wonder why it has taken 40 years for women’s football to catch the national consciousness. The successful run of the Lionesses in the current Euros has given the standing of the game a much-needed shot in the arm; hopefully, their performances will be the subject of as much pub talk as their male counterparts.
Accordingly, I shall adopt the role of pub bore and give my assessment of England’s 2-1 win over Spain. The ever-enthusiastic Ian Wright, one of the pundits, was correct to point out that England were “played off the park”, yet somehow “found a way” to prevail, which said a lot for “their grit and determination”, but then he became overcome with the emotion of it all and turned round to dance with the crowd thronging the stand below the TV gantry. Incidentally, the ratio of men to women among the pundits was 50-50 (two each), which is unusual for the BBC these days; often the women outnumber the men, for some reason. And for once I had no cavil with the women wheeled out in front of the camera. Alex Scott MBE, a former full back for Arsenal, with 140 caps for England, clearly knows her onions and is now an easily recognised presenter on a wide variety of TV shows. Gabby Logan? Any daughter of the former Leeds player, Terry Yorath, has probably forgotten more about the game than most fans ever knew.
The match lost nothing in comparison with the men’s game. In fact, it was almost a carbon copy. Spain, with a number ofBarcelona players in their ranks, played a close, passing game that the great Barca teams of old always played. They kept the ball, their control was admirable and for long periods England were chasing shadows. Spain thoroughly deserved their 1-0 lead and up until seven minutes from the final whistle, theywere the only winners. But eventually, England’s long ball game paid dividends. A cross into the box was won by a girl known for her heading ability and one of the subs latched onto the loose ball to drive it into the net. 1-1. England had a lifeline as we went into extra time.
The goal that won it for the Lionesses deserves a watch on You Tube by even the most sceptical of male fans. It was a screamer from outside the box by Georgia Stanway and I defy anybody to claim that a man could have hit it with more power and greater accuracy. It was a ‘wow’ moment. She did the ‘slide on knees’ celebration towards the camera - of course she did. It always makes me wince whenever I see that, no doubt heedful of the awful surfaces we used to play on.
And here’s another thing. I noticed it when I went to Wimbledon a few weeks ago. Women get on with the game. It doesn’t take them ten minutes to serve, as Nadal seems to take. All 22 players at Brighton eschewed incessant appealing, remonstrating with officials, rolling about theatrically when fouled (or not fouled) and there was little or no dissent, because any sign of it, we were told, would immediately be punished with a yellow card. Thus, there was no indignantgesticulating, no surrounding of the referee, no mass incursions from an outraged bench – just the odd frown or shake of the head. The men’s game could do worse than take a leaf out of their book.
“They’ve all got blond ponytails,” observed my wife. They did indeed, apart from Lucy Bronze, whose hair colour more resembles her name. But then an uneasy thought struck me. Where were all the black girls? There was not a single girl in the team who wasn’t white. A mixed-race girl did make an appearance as a substitute in the 125th minute but in the Spanish team, either on the pitch or ranged on the substitutes’ bench, there was no sign of a black woman. Does this reallymean that no woman of colour is good enough to play for England, let alone Spain? Do the Lionesses have an image problem here, replacing one of class with one of race? I would dearly love to know.