England’s women have done what the men couldn’t do – win a couple of games in the World Cup. For sheer endeavour and “heart-on-sleeve” commitment, you cannot fault the “Lionesses,” and it has been good to see that the competition, as a whole, has been free of some of the dirty tricks we normally associate with FIFA events.
But it’s also notable that the siege mentality normally adopted by England teams when they come under fire is starting to filter into the Women’s game. Chelsea’s Eniola Aluko, for example, has hit out at those people who have criticised the quality of the World Cup and tried to make comparisons with the men’s game.
Comparisons are inevitable, but Aluko’s comment that such views are “uneducated” will do little to change opinion, neither will her conclusion: “If you don’t like women’s football, then my message would be: don’t watch it. I know that sounds controversial and we have a responsibility to grow the game but actually the product is very good and I think that people saying negative things about women’s football are now in the minority.” Surely it’s about changing, rather than excluding, minds?
Aluko may be confusing “negative” with “opinion” – a common mistake across society these days. Actually, there’s a book being published about the 21st century trend of people being afraid to express an opinion for fear of offending – we don’t say what we mean anymore, because people don’t want to hear “negative things”.
There’s absolutely no place for mindless abuse about the quality of women’s football – and the twittersphere has been full of trolling about the game – but I have watched quite a lot of women’s football and, although it’s better than it was 20 years ago, it still lacks mass appeal as a spectator sport.
Let’s first look at the standard of the World Cup as a whole. It’s really just above English non-league step 3 or 4 (that’s Southern League/Ryman League/Northern Premier) level. As a spectator sport, it’s the committed who are going to get most pleasure from it. For example, the myopic can watch a step 3 game and be totally engrossed in their own team’s performance, but if they see non-league football on TV it is invariably brushed aside as “crap”. In other words, this level of football is – mostly, I will add, there are exceptions – for those that play it, those that are connected or related to it. As much as it hurts those that fall into those categories, those outside that exclusive band find it hard to accept that their pastime has only limited appeal in the wider world. At the moment, women’s football falls very much into that category.
If you want one reason why Women’s football will struggle to capture a bigger, more diverse, audience it is this: aggression. Football is a physical sport – admittedly, not as physical as Rugby and some other team sports – and there’s a distinct lack of combat in the ladies’ game. Technically, some players look very gifted, but the rough and tumble of the men’s game, which does act as a spur to the crowd to get involved (and I am not talking pitch invasions), is [mostly] missing.
What’s happened with World Cup 2015 is that the women’s game has stuck its head above the parapet and has exposed itself to global scrutiny. And the judgement so far is not 100% positive. It’s a genre of the game that is still developing and is probably not ready for the visibility it is getting. The BBC has been championing the cause for some time, in fact you might argue that the sport is getting disproportionate coverage. The FA Women’s Super League attendances are still very poor, although there was a marked increase in 2014 to around 700 a game. That’s not bad at all for non-league football, but given this is for the top end of the ladies’ game, they perhaps deserve more.
Gates at the FIFA World Cup have been criticised, but when you compare the average to the FA Super League, they are amazing. True, the figures are skewed because of the support for Canada, the host nation, but without the Canadians’ games, the average is just under 23,000. That’s lower than the “minus host” average in the last World Cup and 10,000 per game down on the China-hosted competition. But still, 23,000 is good going.
One solution to cavernous stadiums with no atmosphere would be to host the competition in more realistic settings. England’s last game drew 13,000 people – you don’t need a vast bowl to play a game with minimal public interest. Far better to host these games at small stadiums that are full, making for a better environment. However big and prestigious a venue might be, there’s no value in an empty venue.
The sort of media coverage this competition has received has probably come a World Cup too early. The Women’s game has made big strides, but in a summer where there’s no World Cup or European Championship to distract the sweaty masses, it has almost become centre stage. The question is, was it ready for that kind of attention?