Commentary Box: A bit of perspective on the World Cup 2019

LIKE all World Cup competitions, the 2019 Women’s World Cup has had some poor games, some inept teams and a number of one-sided contests. This is no surprise as the competition is at the group stage, where the weak are removed and the strong limber-up for more taxing encounters. There’s little doubt that since 2015, the standard has improved and the event has caught the attention of more people, certainly on TV and in the media.

The crowds have not been as impressive as expected (current average is 18,500) – there are plenty of huge gaps in the stadiums, although the host nation is well supported, as one would expect. The average will increase as the World Cup reaches the knockout phase.

What’s irritating is the ongoing battle between fans who continue to compare the women’s game to the men’s. Comparisons are just inappropriate, from a quality perspective and also from the view of the economics. There’s no question that women who play football should be treated like their male counterparts, in terms of respect, facilities and governing body support. However, comparing the financial rewards of men’s football with the women’s game is premature and misguided.

We would all agree that male players, at the highest level, are paid too much, but it is a free market with the forces of supply and demand. It has taken decades to reach this point and the men’s game attracts multiples of the crowds that attend women’s football at league level. Comparisons can only seriously be made between non-league football and the Women’s Super League. What may have skewed people’s thinking around this is the considerable coverage women’s football gets versus the impact it has on people that are not committed followers. There will be millions of people that are not aware that a major tournament is taking place in France at the moment.

The media, led by the BBC, have thrown their weight behind women’s football and, in this age of inclusion, political correctness, generational behaviour and emotional politics, there is widespread belief this is the right thing to do. Many traditionalists don’t necessary agree that the quality and relevance of women’s football demands this level of exposure, but as the pinnacle of a segment of the most popular sport in the world, a global tournament such as the World Cup has to be given a chance.

A 24-country format does reveal there is a lack of strength in depth in women’s football, but think back to the days when emerging nations were trounced in the men’s competition. Women’s football is at a very different stage of its evolution, something everyone has to realise when demanding financial equality or raising entertainment expectations too high.

But this brings us to the way the World Cup has been received by some male fans. Some are very critical and if they are comparing the standard to what they might see at Liverpool and Manchester City in the Premier League, then the women’s game is way behind. Some comments have been sexist and misogynistic, but mostly, criticism has been in line with how fans react to men’s football. We must not lose sight of the fact that the football environment, generally, can be cruel, rude, basic and like a bearpit. Some fans of women’s football have been shocked by how insulting people can be, how negative journalists can become, yet this is, rightly or wrongly, part and parcel of the football landscape.

Mostly, however, comments of a negative – but considered and elegantly put – nature are not disrespectful. But there is a trend to dismiss negative views as being out of the misogynist’s dictionary or the rantings of middle-aged, pink-faced, mouth-breathers. We do live in a time when opposing views are rarely respected and the narrative, “you’re either with us or against us”, has become commonplace.

The fact is, women’s football is not for everyone, not because they cannot play football (there’s no shortage of skill or commitment), but because, for one thing, it is a more gentrified game with limited physical contact. That may change as the professionalisation of the sport gathers momentum and serious money gets injected into its development. But it has accelerated in the past four years and if that momentum continues, the women’s game will grow and, just as in other sports like tennis, the gaps will start to close. For the time being, though, constructive criticism is something the sport must contend with – that doesn’t make all critics sexist, patronising or anti-women, people are entitled to have an opinion, but let’s not forget that football is a pastime that provokes debate, emotions and argument. It also makes folk irrational and occasionally causes them to forget their manners!

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