Category Archives: Football

If the FA want a professional women’s League let them pay for it

There have been two main post EURO 2017 stories in English women’s football. The first is the Sampson v Aluko/Spence racism scandal (mentioned in previous post “Women’s football needs a Kerry Packer. Unfortunately it won’t get one”). The second story is the FA’s plans for the FA Women’s Super League (WSL) which are causing a lot of controversy and to my mind are unfair and against the principles which should apply to football. 

From next season (2018-19) the FA want WSL 1 to be a full time professional League of up to 14 clubs. The catch is that the clubs that make up this League will not be decided by success on field (which happens even in money mad men’s football) but by a licensing system where in the words of the FA  “Sporting performance will not be considered in the selection process”. That is a total disgrace. 

It means that the women’s teams of Premier League teams that are not currently in WSL 1 (for example Brighton, Tottenham and West Ham) could leapfrog their way into WSL 1 not by on field performance but because of financial muscle – just as Manchester City were parachuted into WSL 1 in 2014 instead of poor Doncaster Belles purely because of money. That is surely unacceptable. 

Even worse existing WSL 1 teams who earned their WSL 1 places wholly on merit but are part time will lose their place if they are unwilling or unable to go full time. Two examples are are Yeovil Town who have had to use Crowd Funding to raise the £350000 in order to bid for a WSL 1 licence for next season. But if successful what will they do the next season? And the next? and Sunderland – whose team reverted to part time status this year – who have decided to apply for the part time WSL 2. And will the other WSL 1 clubs who are not affiliated to a men’s Premier League team (Birmingham City, Bristol City and Reading) be able (or willing) to spend the money needed. £350000 is chicken feed for a Premier League team. It is not chicken feed for the likes of Yeovil. 

Another question is will all the current WSL 1 players even want to go full time professional? A 28 year old with a secure job might not want to go full time professional for a few years for lesser money than her other job pays. So this hypothetical player might choose to drop down a level to the part time WSL 2 even though she is good enough for WSL 1. That will hardly help the standard of any new League. 

The FA’s plans are ill thought out. Why change the after the season has started? Why the rush? Couldn’t they wait until 2019-20 to start? Why make the whole League full time professional anyway? No other country in Europe currently has a full time professional women’s League. Denmark, France, Germany, Holland and Sweden have all had success at elite level without a full time professional women’s League. There is no reason why England cannot. 

Another thing is that the FA want a full time professional League but don’t want to pay for it. In effect they are passing the buck. If the FA want a full time professional women’s League why don’t they pay for it? Why don’t they say “We will pay the top nine teams in this season’s WSL 1 plus the WSL 2 champions £500000 each to go full time professional”. At £500000 a club that comes to a total of £5 million. For the FA £5 million a year is peanuts. It would also save the women’s teams from the whims of their male parent club. For example Notts County folded earlier this year because the male club decided to stop funding them. If the FA had funded them that might not have happened. 

The FA’s plan is ill thought out and unfair. Have they heard of “Walk before you run?”. At this moment the women’s game is not ready for a full time professional League. If a full time professional women’s League does not exist in more progressive countries like Norway and Sweden why do the FA think it would work in sexist England? It won’t. The FA needs either to be patient and wait for the women’s game to grow naturally or put its money where its mouth is and pay for it themselves. If the FA want a full time professional women’s League they should pay for it.

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Women’s football needs a Kerry Packer. Unfortunately it won’t get one 

With women’s football it sometimes seems like a case of one step forward then one step back. Two months after a fantastic EURO 2017 two of the four Semi Finalists, England and Denmark are in turmoil. Both are involved in dreadful situations and neither countries FA comes out of it with credit. 

First England. Since EURO 2017 the English FA has been involved in a racism scandal. It started with dropped striker Eni Aluko accusing manager Mark Sampson of making racist comments to her. Two independent enquiries cleared Sampson yet Aluko was offered £80000 “hush money” to cover up the allegations.

Then last month the story got worse when another player – Chelsea’s mixed race Drew Spence – accused Sampson of racism – saying he had asked her how many times she had been arrested. Another enquiry was announced but in a bizzare twist Sampson got sacked for an unrelated story – that he behaved inappropriately with young players at his former club Bristol Academy. The ridiculous thing being that the FA had the report into Sampson’s conduct at Bristol Academy two years ago but they did not read it until someone encouraged the FA to do so. Why Sampson wasn’t fully investigated either when he was appointed in 2013 or when the report into his conduct at Bristol appeared two years ago only the FA will know. 

And then last week the affair got even worse when the FA revealed that Sampson had been found guilty of racist remarks to Aluko and Spence. Aluko was totally vindicated and FA Chairman Greg Clarke and Chief Executive Martin Glenn totally humiliated. Both men squirmed through an embarrassingly inept performance in front of the All Party Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee last Wednesday with Clarke claiming allegations of institutional racism at the FA were “fluff”. NOT the FA’s finest hour (to put it mildly). MPs – notably Ian Lucas and Jo Stevens – were not impressed and could you blame them? The FA came across as racist, sexist and determined to protect Sampson at all costs – not a good look. 

But the FA are not the only FA that is not having a good time with its women’s team. EURO 2017 finalists Denmark are also in turmoil. Their World Cup qualifer against Sweden on Friday was cancelled when the players boycotted the game and the second best team in Europe are in danger of being kicked out of the World Cup by FIFA. How did this happen? 

The problem in Denmark is more common in the women’s game than the racism in England – namely pay. The Danish FA and the players have been negotiating since November but with no success. A EURO 2017 Final rematch with Holland last month was cancelled but a temporary agreement allowed their first World Cup qualifer in Hungary to be played (and won 6-1). But negotiations broke down yet again and the game against Sweden was cancelled. Another temporary agreement has allowed tomorrow’s qualifer in Croatia to go ahead but Denmark are at the mercy of UEFA and FIFA. Sweden’s players (to their credit) want the game to be rearranged but shamefully the Swedish FA want to take the forfeit victory.

Denmark is not the first case of a women’s national football team being in dispute with its FA over pay and/or conditions. Australia, the US. Argentina, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland are other countries where this has happened. But none of them reached the stage of the team being in danger of being thrown out of the World Cup. But it is clear that women footballers more and more are getting fed up with low or non existent pay and poor or non existent facilities. The problem for the women players is that there is nowhere for them to go but competitions ran by UEFA and FIFA who have a monopoly on football. There is no alternative for them than to try and pressure sexist, intransigent FAs to change. 

Women’s football in 2017 increasingly reminds me of professional cricket in 1977. Again the players were in dispute with the authorities over pay and conditions. For example Dennis Lillee then the best fast bowler in the world earned more money from his window cleaning business than from playing cricket despite the Australian Cricket Board making hundreds of thousands of dollars in gate receipts from the team’s matches. 

The difference here is that the Australian (and world) cricketers had somewhere else to go. A rich entrapenuer Kerry Packer had fallen out with the Australian Cricket Board for totally different reasons (he wanted exclusive Test rights for his TV station Channel 9 which the board wouldn’t grant). He had the idea to stage his own Test matches and the money to lure discontented cricketers to play in his games. To cut a very long story short (I’ll be writing about the Packer Affair soon) the Australian Cricket Board without the country’s best players ended up drowning in red ink and had to capitulate both to Packer – giving him the TV rights he wanted – and to the Australian players – giving them the higher pay they wanted. Other cricket countries learning the lesson had to increase the pay of their players to protect against another Packer.

Women’s football could really do with its own Kerry Packer to give the players another option and drive pay up. The difference here is that there isn’t a Packer lurking in the background nor will they ever be. Because of ingrained sexism it is highly unlikely that an entrapenuer will be unhappy that his TV station is not covering women’s football and thus be willing to combine with the discontented female players to set up an alternative tournament like Packer did in cricket (nor tolerate the start up losses that Packer did because he knew he would – and did – make money long term). 

The fact is as Jean Williams has pointed out in her books “A Game For Rough Girls” and “A Beautiful Game” is that FIFA, UEFA and most national FAs do not care about women’s football and only run it to maintain their monopoly over the game. They will pay the women as little as they can get away with – just like the Australian Cricket Board in the 1970s. 

The courage of Eni Aluko, Pernille Harder and the rest of the Danish women’s team is admirable and change is happening and will continue to happen. But to speed it up women’s football really needs its own Kerry Packer to break the FIFA monopoly pay women players what they are worth and force the FAs to do likewise to get the players back. But since the media, TV and big business are as sexist towards women’s football as the football establishment women’s football won’t get its Kerry Packer. Which means that the progress towards fair treatment of female footballers will be a lot slower than it should be…

Girls are still being banned from sport – because they are girls 

I’ve mentioned in past posts the 1978 Theresa Bennett case in the UK – where a 12 year old girl wanted to play for a boy’s football team and the Football Association (FA) in its infinite (lack of) wisdom banned her from doing so. Theresa Bennett went to court for her right to play football and initially won. The FA would not give up, appealed the verdict and won because the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 had a clause saying banning girls from competing with or against boys in sports where the average woman is at a disadvantage to the average man (this is still in UK law – in the 2010 Equality Act – today). Then Master of the Rolls Lord Denning actually said this in his judgement : 

Women have many qualities superior to those of men, but they have not got the strength or stamina to run, to kick or tackle, and so forth.

Oh dear, what would he have made of Euro 2017 if he had lived to see it? It was an absolutely terrible judgement which the current standard of women’s football has rendered ridiculous. But that was in 1978. A 2017 Theresa Bennett would be able to play in her boy’s team as the FA allow mixed football until the age of 18 (there should not be any restriction except on grounds of ability but that is a different issue). 

You would think that in 2017 no girl would be banned from a sporting event simply because she was a girl. And guess what? You would be wrong. I have just discovered a case that occurred last month where a girl had to go to court for her right to play in a male team – and she lost. In 2017. To make matters worse as there is no girls team it meant the girl in question could not play in the event at all. 

The sport is cricket and the event is the Maccabiah – colloquially known as the Jewish Olympics as it brings together Jewish athletes from all round the world. 14 year old girl Naomi Eytan was picked for the Israeli junior team at the Maccabiah – but the organisers of the event refused to let her play. Like Theresa Bennett 39 years earlier she had to go to court for her right to play and like Theresa Bennett 39 years ago she lost. A Tel Aviv District Court ruled that Eytan was ineligible for the Israeli team because of her gender. Therefore – and despite being selected for the team on merit – she was banned from the youth team and even worse she was unable to take part in the Maccabiah at all as there is no female cricket competition at the Maccabiah. 

Even more extraordinary the same arguments that stymied Theresa Bennett in 1978 were still being used 39 years later. The Maccabiah citied a passage in the International Cricket Council (ICC) Gender Recognition Policy that basically said that because of significant advantages in size, strength and power enjoyed (on average) by males over females from puberty onwards it is necessary to have separate competition categories for males and females in order to preserve the safety, fairness and integrity of the sport”. 

But the hole in this argument in regard to Eytan is – as I mentioned above – the Maccabiah did not provide a separate competition for girls and women. Surely in that case a girl like Eytan should have the right to try out and be selected for a boy’s team. The Maccabiah also used safety as an argument saying that people can be hit in the head in cricket therefore it would not be safe for Eytan to play. I always find it fascinating that the powers that be in sport so often have more concern for the safety of girls/women than boys/men. Boys and men can be hit in the head too. If the sport is too dangerous for girls and women it is too dangerous for boys and men. 

And here is the clincher. Israeli Cricket Association chairman Steve Leigh said that Eytan had been selected on merit and could stand up to it. “There was absolutely no worry on our part regarding Naomi’s safety – not in the slightest”. Surely that should have swayed the court. There is no sane team that would select someone who was not up to it. Teams want to win. Teams will not select players that are not up to the job as that would hinder their chances of winning. Plus the Maccabiah does not get much publicity outside Israel so there was no danger of Eytan’s selection being a publicity stunt. There was no reason to ban her and it is incredible that 39 years after the Theresa Bennett case cases like this can still happen. And the Maccabiah are hopelessly out of touch with the rest of the world. 

The photograph above shows how ridiculous the Maccabiah banning Eytan is. The little girl in the number 10 shirt is Jackie Groenen – one of the stars of Holland’s recent victory in the women’s Euro 2017 tournament. At the time that this was taken Groenen was twelve years old. The boys she was playing with and against were 14-15 years old. As can be seen from the photograph they were far bigger than Groenen but the Dutch allowed her to play. In fact according to her father – who took this photograph – she “embarrassed” the boys. The boys in the opposition team look absolutely terrified of her. Despite the age and size disadvantage Groenen faced no one seemed concerned about her safety despite the fact that there is physical contact in football (unlike cricket). Nor did the fact that the average man has a strength advantage over the average woman matter as it is clear that Groenen – as anyone who saw her at Euro 2017 knows – is anything but average when it comes to football. It was clear that she was in the team on merit and therefore deserved to be so. The Dutch – unlike the dinosaurs who run the Maccabiah – realised that.

Surely the first rule of sport is that it is a meritocracy – if you are good enough you should be in the team. Ten years ago with Jackie Groenen (who is now 22) the Dutch realised that. Today even the FA realise that. The organisers of the Maccabiah did not realise that. The ban on Naomi Eytan playing in the youth cricket tournament was a disgrace. To ban someone from playing the sport she loves because she is a girl is shameful. You would think that in 2017 this would not happen. But you would be wrong.  The organisers of the Maccabiah should be ashamed of themselves. 

Predicting Premier League finishing positions (10-1)

In my previous post I made my predictions on who would finish in the bottom half of the Premier League table (20-11). In this post I will predict who I think will finish in the top half of the Premier League table, who will qualify for the Champions League and most importantly who I think will win the Premier League title. So let’s start at 10th place and work our way upwards…

10. Southampton – It shows the progress that Southampton have made that another top ten finish plus a League Cup Final appearance which they were desperately unlucky to lose was not enough to save manager Claude Puel’s job. The main problem for Southampton was scoring goals especially at home where only rock bottom Sunderland scored fewer. But Manolo Gabbiadini started well and he and Charlie Austin – if he is fit – will solve that problem. They are probably fighting a losing battle to keep Virgil van Dijk but even without him new manager Mauricio Pellegrino should have enough to keep the Saints in the top ten. 

9. West Ham – West Ham had an unhappy season last time. The move to the Olympic Stadium had teething problems with crowd trouble and fans and players struggled to adapt. For a lot of the season it looked like they were going to be in a relegation struggle. This season should be better. The new signings – Pablo Zabaleta, Joe Hart, Marko Arnautovic and Javier Hernandez – look sensible and they will be more used to their new home. I expect West Ham to get their League position back down to single figures.

8. Leicester City – After four seasons where they won promotion, staged the great escape, won the Premier League title against all odds, then botched their title defence but reached the Champions League Quarter Finals Leicester fans might want a quiet life. I think they will get it. It helps that they will not be the target for scalp hunters that they were last season. They might lose Riyad Mahrez but he was not the force he was the season before last and it is significant that no one has bid for Jamie Vardy this summer. In 2015-16 Leicester over achieved in winning the title and last season they under achieved in finishing 12th. This season they will find their true level as a solid lower top ten team. 

7. Everton – Everton were in a League of their own last season eight points behind sixth but fifteen points ahead of eighth. While I think they will keep seventh place I suspect they will be further away from the top six and nearer the rest of the pack than they were last season. Losing Romelu Lukaku is a huge blow and I don’t think Wayne Rooney who is past his best is an ideal replacement. Jordan Pickford and Michael Keane are interesting signings and they might sell Ross Barkley and sign Gylfi Sigurdsson before the transfer window closes. Participation in the Europa League won’t help and seventh is probably the best they can do.

6. Liverpool – Jurgen Klopp managed to guide Liverpool back to the Champions League (well the qualifying round anyway) last season but the task will be harder this season. Liverpool had the advantage of not being in Europe last season and the squad does not appear to have the strength in depth to challenge on two fronts this season. Personally if Barcelona are offering £90 million for Philippe Coutinho I would take the money and sign four £20 million players to give the squad the depth it badly needs. They did not lose a League game to a fellow top six team last season but that is surely unsustainable and I suspect that Liverpool will finish in the Europa League zone this season.

5. Tottenham – Tottenham have been the best team in the Premier League over the last two seasons (though they did not win the title) but they might have to go backwards before they go forwards. The move to Wembley this season will seriously hinder them – their European form there last season was terrible – while as of this writing they have made zero signings in the close season and lost Kyle Walker. In football if you stand still you go backwards and that is what will happen with Tottenham. They still have Delie Alli and Harry Kane and will be in the race for a Champions League spot but I think they will just miss out. 

4. Arsenal – For the first time in 20 years Arsenal are not in the Champions League. That season (1997-98) they won the League and Cup double but I doubt that happens again. Alexander Lacazette is the star signing but free transfer Sead Kolasinsc is the more interesting signing judging by his substitute appearance in Sunday’s Community Shield. Two problems – the contract situation of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil and if they get off to a bad start the whole Arsene Wenger debate will resurface. Suspect they will regain their Champions League spot but still look a bit below the top three. 

3. Chelsea – All does not appear well at Stamford Bridge. Eden Hazard will miss the start of the season, Diego Costa looks like he is on his way out and manager Antonio Conte is grumbling about the depth (or lack of) in the squad and is talking about avoiding a “Mourinho season” – referring to Chelsea’s inept title defence of two seasons ago. I doubt Chelsea will sink as low this time but they don’t look like a title retaining team. They will have to cope with the rigours of a European campaign – unlike last season. It will be interesting to see how Alvaro Morata adapts to the Premier League but they look unlikely to defend the title.

2. Manchester City – Judging by the hype on his arrival Pep Guadiola was going to lead City to a Premier League/Champions League double without breaking a sweat. Of course nothing of the sort happened and they were no nearer the Champions last season than the season before – in both seasons they trailed the title winners by fifteen points and sometimes the defence was a source of comic entertainment. Guadiola has taken action by signing a new goalkeeper (Ederson) and three new defenders (Kyle Walker, Danilo and Benjamin Mendy). Are these the right players? Some grumbling City fans on Twitter were saying they would rather have England women’s right back Lucy Bronze than Walker. Suspect that they are joking but it does not show confidence in Walker. They need the new defence to bed in quickly, Vincent Kompany to stay fit and John Stones to cut out the errors. For them to win the title that might be too many needs. Watch out for Gabriel Jesus though. This player is a future star. 

1. Manchester United – Ironically last season United had the opposite problem to their neighbours. The defence was solid but the attack apart from Zlatan Ibrahimovic was toothless. They scored fewer League goals last season than Bournemouth – and fewer at home than relegated Hull. Enter £75 million striker Romelu Lukaku. Some people say that Lukaku is just a rabbit killer. I don’t agree but even if he is that is just what United need as they did not do much rabbit killing last season – especially at home. Bournemouth, Burnley, Hull. Stoke, Swansea, West Brom and West Ham all gained draws at Old Trafford last season mainly because United did not take their chances in games they dominated. With all due respect those are the bread and butter games that title challengers MUST win. If Lukaku can turn those draws into victories he repays his fee. Add to that the signing of Nemanja Matic from Chelsea – which Chelsea could live to regret – that Paul Pogba might have adapted to the Premier League, Marcus Rashford will keep improving and José Mourinho’s tradition of having a better second season in charge and you have my tips for the title – just. 

I suspect that the key to the season is will Lukaku improve United’s striking weakness or will City’s new defence solve their weakness in that department? My prediction is for Lukaku to have the impact on United that Robin van Pierse did in their last title winning season (2012-13) and bring the title back to Old Trafford.

Predicting Premier League finishing positions (20-11) 

So the greatest show on earth – well according to the Sky Sports hype machine anyway – is about to start. On the 25th anniversary of its formation back in 1992 another Premier League season starts – this time unusually on a Friday night with a match between Arsenal and Leicester City. As usual there are plenty of questions. Will Chelsea defend the title? Can José Mourinho or Pep Guadiola bring title glory back to Manchester? Will Tottenham maintain their progress? Can Arsene Wenger regain Arsenal’s Champions League place? Who will get relegated?.

I don’t know the answer…but I’ll have a go. In the next two posts I will be predicting the finishing prediction of every Premier League club…and in time honoured tradition I will do it in reverse order. In this post I will predict positions 20 to 11. 

20. Huddersfield – Huddersfield finished last season with a goal difference of minus two. They won their play off Semi Final and Final on penalties. Had a team been promoted to League One with that record I would say they faced a battle to stay up. In the Premier League they have no chance. Thirteen Championship teams scored more goals than Huddersfield eight conceded less. Their only asset is highly rated young manager David Wagner. I suspect Wagner has more chance of being in the Premier League next season than his team has. 

19. Burnley – It was a remarkable achievement for Sean Dyche to keep Burnley up last season but it will be harder this season. They stayed up exclusively on their home form and I suspect that form is unsustainable. Therefore they will have to improve their awful away form which I suspect will be beyond them especially with key players Michael Keane and Andre Gray gone. This time I don’t think they survive. 

18. Crystal Palace – Survival specialist Sam Allardyce managed to keep them up last season but he has left. Bolton, Blackburn and Sunderland were all relegated soon after Allardyce left and Palace could follow suit. Allardyce’s successor Frank de Boer is new to the Premier League and flopped at Inter Milan. Their home form is absolutely abysmal – they have lost ten or more home games in the last three seasons. If that does not improve Palace are in serious danger. 

17. Brighton – In all but three Premier League seasons one or two of the promoted clubs stay up. In most seasons one promoted team is a cert to go down (see Huddersfield) one promoted team is marginal and one promoted team stays up quite comfortably (I’ll get to the one I think will stay up OK this season later). Brighton are a toss up to stay up but the combination of home support and an experienced Premier League manager in Chris Hughton might – might – be enough to keep them up.

16. West Brom – Tony Pullis has never been relegated in his managerial career and he won’t be this season either. That said I see West Brom slipping down the table. They did not finish last season well, the fans are grumbling about the style of play, they struggle to score goals, have only made two new signings and have lost captain Darren Fletcher. All that equals a harder season than previously but I still think they will be OK. 

15. Newcastle – For the second time in seven years Newcastle bounced back from relegation at the first time of asking this time under experienced manager Rafael Benitez and they are the most likely of the promoted teams to have a comfortable season. That said their points tally of 94 was eight less than their Championship winning tally of 2009-10. They finished 12th in their first season back in the Premier League on that occasion and I don’t think they will finish that high this time. Still had they appointed Benitez earlier in 2015-16 they would probably have stayed up then and with him in charge for a full season they should accumulate enough points to stay up.

14. Watford – Watford finished last season abysmally with six defeats in a row but the appointment of Marco Silva should lead to improvement. He nearly kept a poor Hull team up last season – had he been at Hull all last season and maintained their points per game tally they would have finished 13th – and I suspect Watford will finish in that vacinity. It will be interesting to see how new signings Tom Cleverly and Will Hughes do but not only do I think Watford will stay up Silva might even survive for another season – a rarity for a Watford manager.

13. Swansea – At the start of this year Swansea were bottom of the table and after Bob Bradley’s shambolic reign looked doomed. But under the impressive Paul Clement Swansea gained 29 points from his 19 games in charge. If he did that over a full season they would probably be top ten. But star player Gylfi Sigurdsson looks highly likely to leave most likely to Everton. In predicting Swansea’s finishing position I have assumed that Sigurdsson will go. If he stays they could finish in the top half but even without him I expect them to be safe mid table. 

12. Stoke – Stoke are arguably the best run club in the Premier League but they appear to have plataued in mid table. They have sold Marko Arnautovic and their first three home games are hard –  Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea. But their toughness and determination should ensure Premier League safety for another season. 

11.  Bournemouth – The smallest club in the Premier League in terms of ground capacity but not ambition. The signing of Nathan Ake – who was on loan at the club last season – is a declaration of intent. Agmir Begovic is an experienced goalkeeper and Jermaine Defoe last season scored 15 goals for a Sunderland team that were by a long way the worst in the League. Bournemouth play a nice style of football and unless another Premier League club takes a punt on manager Eddie Howe they are in no danger of a relegation battle and might even crack the top ten again.

So that is part one of my predictions done – the bottom half. Tomorrow the fun starts when I predict the top half and who I think will win the title…

Recalling the summer of 1989…and comparing it to 2017

So hosts Holland won Euro 2017…and deservedly so. Full of outstanding young attacking players like Linke Martens, Jackie Groenen, Danielle van de Donk, Shanice van de Sanden, and – above all – Vivianne Miedema all of whom are 25 or younger and therefore still have growth potential. They were the most entertaining team on view and a team who were impossible not to like – unless you were a member of the Euro 1988 winning Dutch men’s team (I’ll get to him later).

Holland also took the tournament to their hearts. Every Dutch game was a sell out the record attendance for a women’s game in Holland was broken three times during the tournament and the Final attracted 5.4 MILLION viewers on Dutch TV (the highest audience for any programme in Holland since the 2014 men’s World Cup). Holland has gone women’s football mad. But the question is : Can, will the interest be sustained? 

There is a historical precedent of a marginalized group of footballers winning the hearts of a country in a home tournament….but the interest was not sustained.  I’m going to write about that event before comparing it to Euro 2017 to see the differences and the similarities.

Let’s go back to the summer of 1989. It was not good. Jive Bunny were number one in the charts for five weeks (oh dear) and England got hammered 4-0 in a gruesomely one sided Ashes series in which England used 29 (!) players in six Tests compared to Australia’s 12. Meanwhile football in England was reeling from the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster and in Scotland there was a sensation when ex Celtic star Maurice Johnston joined bitter rivals Rangers becoming that club’s first ever Roman Catholic player. 

Also in 1989 Scotland hosted the FIFA Under 16 World Cup the biggest football event hosted in Scotland (still is). But at first the country did not take much notice. Scotland drew 0-0 with Ghana in the tournament’s first game in front of just 6,000 spectators at Hampden Park. And that was the biggest attendance of the first round of matches. It looked like the tournament was going to be a flop.

But two pieces of luck boosted the tournament. First of all there were late night TV highlights shown on Scottish Television (STV). Viewers noted that the football was entertaining and a refreshing contrast to the safety first sterility of the adult game and that encouraged fans to go to the games. Secondly the host nation started to improve. Scotland beat Cuba 3-0 in front of 9,000 spectators at Motherwell (a 50% increase on their first game!), drew with Bahrain (in front of 13,500 another increase) and advanced to the Quarter Finals. The team went on to beat East Germany 1-0 to qualify for the Semi Finals at Tynecastle in Edinburgh. 

And then it got a bit crazy. Scotland beat a Portugal team including future Barcelona and Real Madrid star Luis Figo (along with Roberto Carlos of Brazil the biggest future star that played in this tournament). What was crazy was the crowd. The kick off was delayed by 45 minutes to let a crowd of 29,000 into the ground. 29,000! For sixteen year old boys! The police and the ground authorities totally underestimated the interest in the game. And Scotland were in a World Cup Final which is something that football fans in the country had fantasised about. The squad of 16 year old kids were national heroes.

So on to Saturday June 24th 1989. Scotland were in a World Cup Final on home soil. The game at Hampden was televised live on STV yet 50,956 fans turned up for the Final against Saudi Arabia – only 3,500 less than turned up for a Celtic v Rangers Scottish Cup Final in 1977 that was also televised live. Football fever was sweeping Scotland and it was all for 16 year old boys. When Scotland roared into a 2-0 lead it looked like the fairytale would be completed. But two Saudi goals and a missed penalty by Brian O’Neill meant the game finished 2-2 after extra time. Scotland lost the shoot out 5-4 with poor O’Neill being the only player to miss his penalty. The fairytale was over and to make it worse there were suspicions that the Saudis had fielded overage players. Even twenty years later then SFA secretary Ernie Walker felt that Scotland had been cheated of glory. 

There were differences between the under 16 team and Euro 2017. While the interest in the under 16 World Cup was a mainly Scottish phenomenon England, Austria, Denmark and France as well as Holland had record TV ratings and increased interest. Another difference is that no one said either that the under 16 team were inferior to adult males or that they should be in the adult Scotland team. In contrast Arnold Muhren a member of the Euro 1988 winning Dutch men’s team said that the women’s team could not compete with a men’s fifth division team (totally irrelevant). On the other hand a banner at one of Holland’s games said “Who needs Neymar when you have Linke Martens?”. But Martens plays for Barcelona’s women’s team not the men’s so the comparison is irrelevant. The Under 16 team were accepted for what they were. Sadly women’s football is still not treated the same way.

Another difference is that the Dutch women’s teams first game was a sell out which means that there was an interest there before the tournament started. Unlike the 1989 under 16 team where (see above) interest started low but there was a bandwagon effect and the Scottish public were swept along on a tide of national euphoria. It won’t be a surprise to know that an under 16 game in Scotland has never attracted 50,000 spectators again. 

And that is the challenge for women’s football. The World Cup and the Euros have established themselves as major events. Fans are happy to support a successful national team regardless of whether it is an under 16 team or it is a female team. The problem is that the women’s club game is still struggling as the collapse of Notts County in England earlier this year proved. What women’s football needs is for at least some of the fans who watched on TV and at the ground to remain fans and watch the regular League games. It also needs more and better coverage of those League games. For example in England the Women’s Super League (WSL) fixtures were announced yesterday. If only a tenth of the four million people who watched England lose to Holland in the Semi Final of the Euros watch the WSL next season it would be a huge boost to women’s football in England. 

There is no doubt that the standard of women’s football is rising because of professionalism. Young players like Miedema, Stenia Blackstenius and Ada Hegerberg are amazingly good. However if fans don’t go to club games professionalism in women’s football might not be sustainable. If women’s football is to realise it’s full potential fans must realise that women’s football is for life. Not just every two years…

Where is Eastern Europe? 

There is no doubt that so far Euro 2017 has been a great success and a credit to women’s football. TV audiences are going up – the audience for Holland’s first game was 172 per cent up on their opener four years ago even though the event is in Holland so people who might have been watching on TV had the event been played elsewhere were watching in the stadium. Also the games are getting more competitive despite the event being expanded to sixteen teams. There has only been one mismatch (England v Scotland) as the players benefiting from an increase in professionalism are fitter and stronger than ever before. What used to be a predictable event has produced shock results.  For example 2013 runners up Norway have crashed out of the tournament without winning a point or scoring a goal and already eliminated Italy defeated Olympic silver medalists Sweden 3-2 last night. It is clear that women’s football is both improving in standard and increasing in popularity. 

But there is one big anomaly. Last night Russia were eliminated. The country did not disgrace themselves – in fact by beating Italy 2-1 they won their first match at a Euro at their thirteenth attempt and in their fourth Finals tournament – but Russia were the only Eastern European country (meaning the countries of the old Warsaw Pact plus the old Yugoslavia) to play at the event. This is a big contrast to men’s football (the 16 teams in Euro 2008* included five teams from Eastern Europe). Nor is this situation unique to this tournament. In all the women’s European Championships eighteen countries have taken part only two of them from Eastern Europe (apart from Russia Ukraine qualified in 2009). Ukraine won one meaningless game at that tournament meaning that counting this year Eastern European teams have won two out of eighteen games at women’s Euros. 

I find that a baffling statistic. Now it could be said that Eastern Europe is a sexist part of the world but it has a good record in women’s sport that is not football. An example of this is in “Playing With the Boys” by Eileen McDonough and Laura Pappano (page 204) “America was losing the athletic cold war and one big reason, political leaders concluded, was because US females were being soundly beaten by their Soviet rivals. At the 1960 Olympic Games, for example, Soviet women earned twice as many medals as American women, 28 to 12”. So it was clear that at least before the passing of Title IX and the collapse of Communism Eastern European female athletes were superior to their American and Western European counterparts.

Another example is the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) rankings. Remember only one of the top sixteen women’s football teams in Europe is Eastern European (Russia). In contrast eleven of the top sixteen European WTA players represent Eastern European countries. Women from the Czech Republic, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Latvia and Slovakia are among the list including new World number 1 Karolina Pliskova, number 2 Simona Halep and the sport’s newest Grand Slam Champion Alona Ostapenko. To add to this four of the top sixteen European WTA players who do not represent an Eastern European country had at least one parent from Eastern Europe (Angelique Kerber, Johanna Konta, Caroline Wozniacki and Kristina Mladenovic). So fifteen of the top sixteen European women tennis players are either born in Eastern Europe or have Eastern European parents. Interestingly of the women mentioned above three – Wozniacki, Halep and Mladenovic – have fathers or brothers that are/were professional footballers. 

Yet in contrast 20 out of the 46 countries that entered the Euro 2017 qualifing tournament were Eastern European. Of those 20 two were knocked out in the Preliminary Round, and of the other 18 all but Russia and Romania finished third or lower in their groups. Six Eastern European countries finished the qualifing groups without a point. It is quite amazing that 14 out of 26 Western European countries qualified for Euro 2017 and only one out of 20 Eastern European countries did. It shows that at the moment in women’s football Eastern Europe is a second division. 

The only explanation – since it is clear from their success in women’s sport (tennis, track and field, gymnastics and weightlifting for example) that Eastern Europe has female athletic talent and encourages it – is that there is something about football that the establishment in the Eastern European countries does not like. Their past and current success in women’s sport shows that – unlike the UK and US in the past – Eastern Europe is not hostile to women’s sport but they are to women’s football.  I have no idea why. 

But there is encouragement for women’s football in Eastern Europe. The impressive performances of Portugal and especially Belgium and Austria in their first major Finals shows that if you invest in women’s football you will reap the divided. And we know from what I mentioned above that Eastern Europe has the female athletic talent. 

If Eastern Europe ever gets its act together and takes women’s football seriously it could revolutionise two sports. Imagine if the next generation of Pliskovas, Haleps and Ostapenkos chose to be professional footballers not tennis players. That could be catastrophic for the WTA. As an article in the New York Times (March 6 2016) puts it “But it is just as crystal clear that the WTA is on borrowed time when it comes to global leadership. Women’s soccer, a still-drowsy giant, continues to stir”.  If that giant ever wakes up in Eastern Europe which supplies most of the tennis talent in Europe tennis might lose its status as the dominant professional sport for women. 

Right now the place to see Eastern European female athletic talent is on the tennis court. On the football field Eastern Europe is almost irrelevant. But that could change. If a future generation of Pliskovas, Haleps and Ostapenkos ever chose football and not tennis the WTA could be in deep trouble. 

*I did not use Euro 2012 as a comparator since Poland and Ukraine qualified as co hosts thus inflating the number of Eastern European teams, or Euro 2016 as it had 24 teams.