For women’s football to suceed the culture of UK football must change

So the Women’s World Cup has been going on for a week – and predictably the dinosaurs have come out of hiding. The worst comment has come from Marconi Aureilo Cunha head of women’s football development at the Brazilian FA who thinks make up and shorter shorts is the key to growing women’s football. Its obvious this twit would vote for Sepp Blatter in a FIFA Presidential election. God knows what Marta – the best player in the world – thinks of that. If I were her I’d have done a Diego Costa quit Brazil and qualify to play for a country that treats female footballers with more respect.

That would not be the UK. A friend of mine – who has never seen a women’s game – thinks you could pick eleven men off the electoral register at random and they would beat the eleven best women. And when Oliver Holt wrote a sympathetic article on women’s football in the Mail on Sunday the comments were horrific. They were complaints that women’s football was being rammed down people’s throats by the BBC (and here is me thinking TV sets have remote controls so you can easily get away from anything you don’t want to watch. I don’t like golf. Guess what? I choose not to watch it!) But I suspect it is partly the culture of male football in the UK that makes it hard for women’s football to be accepted here.

The perception of women’s football in the UK is that with the ball at their feet women can be as skilful as men but the game lacks pace and power. I should say I am not saying that is true. The skill bit is. Anyone who has seen goals by Eugenie Le Sommer, Maren Mjelde and Daniela Montoya – among others at this World Cup  – will agree with Jean Williams when she writes (in “A Game for Rough Girls?” page 121) that “Girls and women are clearly physically able to execute the skills”. That makes football different from say baseball where I don’t think women can hit 400 foot home runs or throw 95 mph fastballs. But it doesn’t matter if the perception is true or not. That is what people think about women’s football (even the players themselves think this).

That would not be a problem for women’s football if football fans liked skill. But in my opinion UK football culture does not think skill is as important as pace power and tackling and that is why women’s football struggles to gain public acceptance. There are plenty examples of this attitude. In the 1970s skilful players were called “fanny merchants” by fans. Note the reference to female anatomy. Glenn Hoddle – one of the most skilful players English football has produced was nicknamed “Glenda” by the UK press because he didn’t tackle and run about like an idiot. Again note the female reference. And this continues to this day. Andy Gray – in the second most ludicrous thing he ever said – kept saying about Lionel Messi – a candidate for the greatest footballer of all time – “Could he do it on a cold rainy night at Stoke?”. He said this because Stoke at the time were the most physical team in the Premier League (they have refined their style since then).  The implication being that small skilful players can’t cope with the physicality of English football. Only a culture that holds skill in contempt would even dream of asking that question.

More examples of this culture come from German football writer/broadcaster Raphael Honigstein. In his book “Englisher Fussball” he writes that “during a Sunday kickabout in England you get tackled to bits” and that English players “steam into each bone crunching challenge with a happy sense of abandon”. Yet no one would say German football was soft and even a German was horrified  by the physicality of our game.

And the fact that Lee Cattermole gets employment in the Premier League sums up the UK football culture. Cattermole is a physical player who loves to tackle. He got 14 bookings in the Premier League in the season just finished. But as the Daily Telegraph put it in March 2014 “He struggles with the ball at his feet”. Yes you have read it right. A guy who struggles with the ball at his feet earns a living playing football (the clue is in the name of the sport). There are a lot of women in Canada who don’t struggle with the ball at their feet and yet earn less than this nonentity who in my opinion would not gain employment as a footballer in any other country in Europe. I should stress that tackling and power have a place in football but surely if you win the ball in a tackle you should be able to know what to do with it.

This football mentality is also in my opinion why England’s men have failed to win a major international event since 1966. And it explains one of the fundamental reasons why women’s football is not accepted here (there are plenty of others). But if a sport is perceived to be skilful in a culture that doses not regard skill as highly as pace power and tackling it will struggle to gain acceptance. Until the whole culture of UK football changes women’s football will always struggle to gain the recognition it deserves. And even for those who don’t care about women’s football there should be a motive for getting rid of the likes of Lee Cattermole and prioritising skill over physicality. It might give England’s men a chance of winning something again…

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