Tag Archives: women’s football

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.

Recalling an unsung hero

Today is an historic night for women’s football in Scotland as the national team finally makes its debut in a major tournament – against England of all teams. There is no doubt that the team thoroughly deserved this debut as they were unlucky to qualify for both Euro 2009 (lost to Russia in a play off on away goals) and Euro 2013 (lost to Spain in a play off to a goal in the 122nd minute). So after the misery the team has gone through in the past they deserve their place in the sun (and the fact that they are playing England is a boost as this gives women’s football in Scotland far more publicity than they would have gotten had they been drawn in any other group). 

But this is also a time to reflect on the players who helped make Scottish women’s football – the early pioneers like Nettie Honeyball, Nancy “Cannonball” Thompson and Julie Fleeting – and an unsung hero who has a claim to be the greatest female footballer this island has ever produced but yet got totally disowned by her own country and had to play for another country in international football.

The player I am talking about is Rose Reilly. Rose was born in Stewarton East Ayrshire. Now you have to remember in these days (the late 1960s) women’s football was still banned in the UK. Rose wanted to play football but the only way she could play was to cut her hair short and call herself Ross Reilly so she could play for Stewarton Boys’ Club. She was so good that a scout from Celtic who was watching Stewarton wanted “him” to sign for Celtic – but as she was a girl not only could she not sign for Celtic she could not play for the Boys’ Club anymore.

Luckily there was a women’s team she could join – Stewarton Thistle. In 1971 she played aged 16 in the first English women’s FA Cup losing to Southampton. She was a losing finalist in the English FA Cup Final three years in a row and played in the first Scotland international of the new era (1972). 

But she wanted to be a professional footballer – but in the Scotland of the 1970s there was no career opportunities for women in football. Luckily she was able to make a career for herself abroad. In 1974 she moved to French professional team Reims but after just six months moved to Italy with Milan. 

To show how ridiculous football in Scotland was for the heinous crime of having a professional career abroad Reilly was banned in 1975 (along with team mate Edna Nellis) for life from playing for Scotland. This was not unique to Scotland at the time. England’s Sue Lopez had to choose between playing for England and being a professional abroad but in her case she gave up a professional career for an international one. Even in men’s football there were people who wanted Kevin Keegan banned from playing for England when he joined Hamburg in 1977! 

Reilly thought at the time that her career was over. Luckily it wasn’t as she went on to play for a variety of Italian teams including Catania and Leece as well as Milan. Amazingly in 1978-79 she won League titles in two different countries! She win the Italian League with Leece (playing on Saturday nights) and the French League with Remis (playing on Sunday afternoons). We can guarantee that will never happen again! 

She was even able to play international football despite being banned from playing for Scotland. She got Italian citizenship and was able to play in a Women’s World Cup in China in 1983 because the event was not officially recognised by FIFA (FIFA did not hold an Official Women’s World Cup until 1991). Not only did she play for Italy she captained them to the title and scored from 40 yards in the final and was voted the “Best Female Player in the World”. 

By 1984 Reilly was earning £12000 a year with Trani (for comparison current England captain Steph Houghton reportedly earns £60000 a year). She played in Italy until retiring at the age of 40. She won 22 caps for Italy and ten for Scotland during a career where Celtic tried to sign her, she would get banned from playing for her own country, won League titles in two countries in one season and won a World Cup with her adopted country. 

Her story has a happy ending in that the Scottish Football Association (SFA) inducted her into their Hall of Fame finally making up for the injustice of banning her for life back in 1975. Rose Reilly has a significant claim to be the best female footballer off all time in the UK – never mind Scotland. Today she lives in her home town of Stewarton and I’m sure she will be watching her successors play England tonight with pride and might be wondering what might have been had the SFA had let her play for her own country….

Who will be the Queens of Europe? 

A year after Euro 2016 the men’s European Football Championship the women’s equivalent Euro 2017 starts in Holland this Sunday. Reflecting the growth in women’s football this is the biggest women’s Euros in history with sixteen countries participating. To think only twelve years ago in 2005 only eight teams participated in the Euros. In 2009 the tournament expanded to twelve teams and now in 2017 there are now sixteen teams. 

This will improve the tournament as sixteen teams means that the group stage has been made simpler. No more third place finishers qualifying without winning a game (like Portugal did in the men’s Euros last year) and no more needing slide rules and calculators to work out which third placed teams go through or which first placed teams the third place teams play. Just nice and simple. 

So with that said what might happen in the tournament? One fascinating thing about the draw is it has thrown up five matches between near neighbours which if nothing else might give the tournament extra publicity. So let’s take a look at the groups.

Group A – Holland, Norway, Denmark, Belgium – In men’s football it is often said that the host nation has an easy draw. This does not apply to the women. Hosts Holland are in a group that involves three of the top eight European teams in the FIFA world rankings. The Dutch team like their men boast a squad that is mainly scattered across Europe including four Arsenal players -Sari van Veenenvdaal, Danielle van den donk, Dominique Jansen and new signing – and the teams star player – Vivienne Miedena. Their problems include the loss of Manon Melissa to retirement since the last World Cup and can they cope with the pressure of being hosts? Women’s football as we all know does not get the same publicity as the men’s game which can make it harder when players who are not used to hype and publicity suddenly have to cope with it. 

And it is by no means certain that Holland will even get out of the group. This is not because they are a bad team – quite the opposite – it is the quality of the opposition. First of all there is 2013 Finalists Norway who include arguably the best striker in the world Ada Hegerberg. her sister Andrine, the excellent Caroline Graham Hansen – who they badly missed at the last World Cup – plus captain Maren Mjelde. One worry for Norway is that Ada Hegerberg laboured through the Champions League Final in June and did not look fit. They will hope she is back to her best but they are always competitive in the Euros and will be so again. 

So will their neighbours Denmark. They won’t be able to get to the Semi Finals without winning a game again – the benefit of not having third placed teams qualifying – but with star strikers Pernile Harder and Nadia Nadim and a history of punching above their weight in the Euros means they cannot be underestimated. Neither can first time finalists Belgium. During qualifying they became the first team in eight years to avoid defeat away to England in a competitive game and also drew with neighbours Holland in qualification for the last World Cup. Realistically I cannot see the “Red Flames” qualifying from the group. I can see them taking a point from at least one game – and whatever team that is could miss out on the next stage as a result….

Predicted Qualifiers – Norway, Holland.

Group B – Germany, Sweden, Italy, Russia – In contrast to Group A this group on paper looks clear cut for Germany and Sweden. Germany are the powerhouse of European women’s football and have won the title six times in a row. In 2013 people predicted France, England. Sweden or Norway might end their dominance but none of them did. Thy might have needed two penalty saves from the excellent Nadine Angerer to win the title but they still did. They were not expected to win the Olympics last year either – but they did. For the first time in a decade the Frau Bundesliga did not provide a Champions League semi finalist but omminously for the rest of Europe the last time that happened Germany won the World Cup without conceding a goal. Again (like 2013) key players – in this case Simone Ladehr and Melanie Leopulz – are injured and they have a new coach in Steffi Jones who has been in the job for less than a year. And yet…they have excellent players like Dzenifer Marozsan, Anja Mittag and Tabea Kemme. More important they are used to winning. Anything less than the Final is unthinkable and the title is highly likely.

What Sweden will turn up in Holland? Will it be the team that flopped horribly in the World Cup two years ago or the superbly organised team that won the silver medal in the Olympics last year? My money is on the latter. Under veteran coach Pia Sundhage they will be well organised and have one of the best keepers in the tournament Hedvig Landhal, an experienced defender in Nilla Fischer and experienced players Caroline Seager, Kosovare Asllani and Lotta Schelin. I hope Sweden make use of young striker Stima Blackstenius who will be a star. Could be between them and their Norwegian neighbours for a Semi Final spot. 

The other two teams in this group are examples of former powers in the women’s game trying to get back into prominence. Italy were in the first World Cup in 1991 which had only twelve teams but have not qualified for a World Cup since 1999. They were runners up in the Euros in 1997 but have platued at the Quarter Final stage ever since. Russia – the only Eastern European team in the finals in contrast to both the men’s game and the high number of elite women tennis players from Eastern Europe – reached the Quarter Finals of the 2003 World Cup but have failed to qualify for a World Cup since. Both – but especially Italy – might be on the way back up but I doubt either knock out Germany or Sweden. 

Predicted Qualifiers – Germany, Sweden.

Group C – France, Iceland, Austria, Switzerland – In my post on the 2015 World Cup I compared France to the South Africa men’s cricket team calling them talented chokers who never win anything. This year South Africa have failed to win a major tournament yet again. Will France finally win? A lot of people think so but not me. Yes they have magnificent players – captain Wendie Renard, Amandine Henry, Camille Abily and Eugenie Le Sommer for example – but they have had these players before. They still have an appalling chance conversation rate and unless or until they get a better striker than Marie-Laure Delie they won’t be winning anything. Some people think the fact they won the She Believes Cup in the US changes things but they were only impressive against the rebuilding host nation which in the context of this tournament is irrelevant. Against European teams they needed two late goals to beat England and would have lost to Germany but for a missed penalty. That is not a sign of dominance. They will hope to play England though – England have not beaten France since 1974 (!!) 

France should win the group so the interest will be who qualifies with them. One of the candidates is that remarkable little country Iceland who caused mayhem at the men’s Euro 2016 knocking out England on the way to the last eight. But the men were only following the trail blazed by the women in 2013 where they shocked Holland en route to the last eight. They will be contenders again but three players have gone down with the dreaded anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury which is for some reason a blight on the women’s game and their top scorer in qualifying gave birth to a child in March. 

All that could leave a small country vulnerable to either of the debutants in the group the near neighbours Switzerland and Austria. Switzerland have the advantage of being the only one of the debutants to have played in a major tournament before – the last World Cup – and although they slightly underachieved in Canada they will be better off for that experience. Also they have star players Lara Dickenmann, Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic. But their neighbours Austria can not be underestimated either. Although they are debutants fourteen of their twenty three strong squad play in the Frau Bundesliga the best league in Europe. Frankly you can make a case for any of these three teams to ride shotgun behind France but my marginal favourites to do so are Switzerland.

Predicted Qualifiers – France, Switzerland. 

Group D – England, Scotland, Spain, Portugal – This is the British group. England after their magnificent World Cup are for the first time considered among the favourites to win the whole thing. Can they cope with the hype? Coach Mark Sampson named his squad on April 3 – far earlier than he had to. For comparison most of the other teams announced their squads either in late June or early July. It is either very brilliant or very stupid and I suspect that it will come back to haunt him if the team does not do well. My worry is against the very best teams and sometimes even against poor teams (like the two laboured 1-0 wins over Bosnia and Herzegovina in qualifying) the team struggle to score. There are a lot of good in fact very good players available but not the one great player like Kelly Smith used to be. I’d personally have picked Eni Aluko for her pace. I reckon semi finals, maybe the Final – but not the title. 

And England need to hit the ground running. For their first game they have the absolute classic banana skin in Scotland. England should win especially as tragically the brilliant Kim Little – a player so good that four different Americans tweeted to me that not only would she get into their mighty World Cup winning team but she would be their best player – is injured (that damn ACL again). Wether she could have done for Scotland what Gareth Bale did for Wales’ men last year sadly will be a question without an answer. But Scotland are not a one woman team and have players like Manchester City’s top scorer Jane Ross, Lisa Evans who plays for Bayern Munich and Liverpool star Caroline Weir. And they will be up for the first game against England – which makes that match dangerous for England. Scotland’s men are notorious for qualifying for big tournaments but not getting out of the group stage. Can the women change that? Difficult but not impossible.

But this group also contains the dark horses for this tournament (every tournament has one). In the past I have called Spain the sleeping giants of women’s football based on the success of the country in youth tournaments and the talented women that feminist sports writer Jennifer Doyle saw in Barcelona in 2011 – when Spain did not qualify for the World Cup. Doyle said these women play football in the tiki taka style of Barcelona’s men – and we all know how successful they have been. Well there are signs that if the giant is not awake yet it is stirring. The stirring began when a player revolt after the last World Cup finally got rid of coach Ignacio Quereda – who had coached them for 27 years but apparently had treated players awfully. This was a sign that the FA there were finally taking the women’s game seriously as are Barcelona who reached the Champions League Semi Finals for the first time. This team could be dangerous. It is not impossible that they either repeat their win over England from 2013 which could force England into a quarter final against France (see above for why that is NOT good news for England) or that they upset France in the last eight. Watch out for Spain.

To balance the presence of dark horses Spain the group also has the weakest team on paper Portugal who are ranked only 38 by FIFA and 23 by UEFA. They certainly were not expected to finish second in their group above Finland who were in the last three Euros but they did. They still had to go through a play off against Romania to qualify which they did on the away goals rule after extra time. They will be regarded as underdogs but they have a couple of players well known to followers of the WSL here in the UK – ex Chelsea player Ana Borges and ex Liverpool player Amanda da Costa. Could be out of their depth but they have nothing to lose. They had never finished higher than fourth in a Euros qualifying group and they are obviously an improving team. Do not underestimate….

Predicted Qualifiers – England, Spain.

So if I have got that right – very unlikely – that means a last eight line up of Germany v Holland, Norway v Sweden, France v Spain and England v Switzerland. I would predict wins for Germany, Norway (just.That game is a coin toss), England and Spain. Looking at the draw that leads to Germany v Spain and England v Norway. I would further predict a win for Germany and – Norway(another coin toss). I would say Germany are favourites to win but a case can be made for either England, Norway or Sweden to be Finalists. Spain are the dark horses while France (again) could underachieve. 

My wish for this tournament is like in 2015 is that the UK press behaves itself. The sexism was less in 2015 probably because England did well but it was still there. I will also be interested to see how the press in Scotland cover the event as it is the first time the Scotland team has played in a major tournament. Women’s football has little or no coverage in Scotland and shamefully the men’s BetFred (League) Cup starts tonight. A bit of arrogant selfishness from the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) who should be ashamed of themselves for threatening the best chance the women’s game has ever had to gain publicity here. 

I have also seen rumours that the event might be threatened by terrorists. Please God no. Let’s just hope the event passes off peacefully and it is another step on the road to the acceptance of women’s football in Europe. 

Manchester United’s “huge contribution” to women’s football

Every Team Needs A Ron

“The decision was taken some years ago to concentrate on girls’ football as a community activity.  We have since developed that to include elite girls’ development through our Centre of Excellence.  The Club has made a huge contribution to the game through its top level coaching of girls.  At the moment, the Club has no plans to extend that activity to a senior women’s team but the situation is under review.”

– Response at recent Manchester United Fan Forum

“At Manchester United we provide opportunities for girls to play football at the highest level, with the aim of developing international players.”

– Club website, Manchester United Foundation

Manchester United generally respond to questions about why they don’t have a team for women with the line that they have a girl’s centre of excellence. They, I quote, have made a “huge contribution to the game” and aim “of developing international players”.

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Shame on sexist Eurosport UK

Two Champions League finals this week. The men’s Final is on Saturday between the two Madrid clubs Real and Atletico. But I’m going to concentrate on the women’s Champions League Final which will be played tomorrow in Reggio Emilia in Italy.*

Unlike the men’s Final which most people outside Madrid will agree does not feature the two best teams in Europe (most neutrals would have liked to see Bayern Munich managed by Manchester City bound Pep Guadiola play his old club Barcelona) the women’s Final features the two best teams Wolfsburg and Lyon (the only club that might have challenged this – Frau Bundesliga Champions Bayern Munich – were sensationally knocked out in the first round by Dutch club FC Twente). Since that event it seemed that only the draw could stop Wolfsburg and Lyon and the two clubs showed their superiority by crushing holders Frankfurt (4-0) and 2015 runners up PSG (7-0) respectively in the Semi Final first leg thus guaranteeing a Final place.

The talent in these teams is awesome. For Lyon : Ada Hegerberg, Eugenie Le Sommer, Amandine Henry, Wendie Renard…for Wolfsburg Lara Dickenmann, Ramona Bachmann, Alex Popp, Theresa Wullaert. And that is just some of the names. Sadly one of the best players of the lot Caroline Graham Hansen is injured again but even so there is enough talent on the field to excite any fan of football not just women’s football.

So what could happen? Heart says Lyon. There is a resemblance to Barcelona in their attacking talent and the way they steamroller minnows. Lotta Schelin, Hegerberg and Le Sommer are women’s football ‘s answer to Messi, Neymar and Suarez- a footballing “Murderer’s Row” of strikers who score ridiculous numbers of goals and scare the opposition witless. But… Lyon like Barcelona don’t dominate as much as the talent should suggest. Since 2008-09 Barcelona and Lyon have “only” won three and two Champions League respectively. Now that is hardly failure but even so… The reason I think Lyon don’t completely dominate the Champions League is the same reason France have not win an international honour. The French players – the core of the team – are talented chokers who miss a lot of chances. This is OK in the French League were Lyon are miles ahead of everyone but not against teams from the Frau Bundesliga which is the best league in Europe.

And that is why the head says Wolfsburg. Because if Lyon miss chances Wolfsburg have the quality – Bachmann, Popp, Wullaert – to punish a Lyon defence which is not used to being tested. Key player for Lyon is Hegerberg who scored 33 League goals this season (the second top scorer scored only 15). She is a far better finisher than the French players. If Wolfsburg stop Hegerberg a third Champions League win in four seasons is very much on the cards. And I’m going with my head on this one…

But there is a problem. If you want to see the match on UK television forget it. It is not live on UK TV**. That is unbelievable and ridiculous but true. The rights to the Champions League are with Eurosport. Now I’m certain that Eurosport International are showing the match to other countries but Eurosport UK are showing French Open tennis instead. On both their channels! That is just ridiculous. What makes it even more of a joke is that Eurosport UK showed first and second round and quarter final matches but not the Semi Finals or the Final. What other tournament is treated like this?

The UK government should intervene. Eurosport UK must be taken off air at once and replaced with Eurosport International. Long term when the men’s Champions League contract comes up UEFA must insist that any station that covers the men’s Champions League must cover the women’s too. It might cost them money – for example Sky in the UK are so sexist they probably won’t bid for the men’s Champions League in that scenario. But if UEFA cares about women’s football sacrifices have to be made. Also the likes of Manchester United should be told that if they don’t start a women’s team they are out of the Champions League until they do.

The fact that in 2016 the women’s Champions League Final is not on UK TV is embarrassing. Heads must roll. And it must never happen again.

*Since the Women’s Champions League began in 2009-10 (before that it was called the UEFA Women’s Cup) the Final has been played in or near the city that hosts the men’s Final. As the men’s Final is in Milan this year’s is being played near the men’s host city rather than in it.

**Former UK Prime Minister Harold MacMillan was once asked what he feared most and  replied “Events dear boy. Events”. Well events have overtaken this post. Eurosport UK have announced today(May 26th) that the Women’s Champions League Final is being shown live after all. I stand by the rest of what I wrote though. The Women’s Champions League should be included in a “package deal” with the men’s when the contract for the latter comes up for renewal.

 

On the progress of women’s football in England

The sixth season of England’s Women’s Super League (WSL) starts tonight. With the season just starting I thought I’d write my views on the progress of the League and what might happen this season.

First of all the season should not be starting now. Since the WSL started in 2011 it has been a summer League. The FA in its wisdom or lack thereof do this to avoid clashing with men’s football especially the behemoth that is the Premier League. But as anybody reading this will probably know the Premier League is still going on – and will do until May 15th. The Premier League then resumes again in August. Plus in June/July there is Euro 2016 in France. So that is no justification for a summer season as men’s football goes on for most of the year. And it is out of touch with all the other countries in Europe. All the other countries have their women’s season running at the same time as the men’s (August to May in France and Germany for example and summer in Sweden and Norway). Frankly if I were running UEFA or FIFA I would insist the women’s season runs at the same time as the men’s in each country and any country that does not should be banned from the World Cup, the Champions League and the Euros. Why do we Brits insist on being different?

What makes the summer season even more ludicrous is that only the two divisions of the WSL play in the summer. All the rest of the women’s teams play in the winter. Also another ludicrous aspect of the calendar is the FA Cup Final which when the elite women played from August to May was the climax of the season is now in the middle of the season in August. Also women’s football has the Continental Cup – a League Cup equivalent and just as useless. Another example of FA incompetence is that the WSL season starts on the same night as the Champions League Quarter Finals. Genius!

This is not the only example of the FA running the WSL unfairly. When it started the eight teams were selected not decided by where they had finished in the Premier League (which was the elite competition pre WSL). The League also had no relegation for its first three years. Then in 2013 a shocking decision was made. A second teir WSL 2 was established and the existing eight teams in what became WSL 1 were forced to reapply to keep their status. One game into the 2013 season Doncaster Belles were told that they would be in WSL 2 for 2014 regardless of where they finished in WSL 1 in 2013. They would be replaced by Manchester City…who finished fourth in the Premier League. Good logic FA. It was in two cases a blatant case of favouring elite male Premier League clubs. First City should not have been promoted. Secondly Liverpool should have been relegated as they were bottom in 2013 and they can’t even find a grass pitch in Liverpool to play on. Surely the first rule of football is to have a decent pitch. The turf pitch in Widnes Liverpool (and Everton) play on is awful and it might be the reason Liverpool have lost so many players in the off season.

I should state it is not all doom and gloom. The WSL has made progress since 2011 but that is due to Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City investing in their women’s teams rather than anything the FA has done. When the WSL started in 2011 Arsenal were as dominant in UK women’s football as Lyon are in France. The Gunners had won the Premier League seven years in a row and continued their domination in the first two seasons of the WSL.

But then things changed. Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea began investing in their women’s teams and reaped their rewards. Liverpool won the WSL in 2013 and 2014, Chelsea did the League and Cup double last year and Manchester City won the 2014 Continental Cup and qualified for the Champions League next season.

So what could happen this year? While I hate to compare women’s football to men’s football the women’s and men’s game have gone in inverse directions. The big story in the male game this season has of course been the remarkable Premier League title challenge of Leicester City. But the WSL has had its equivalents of Leicester in the past. In 2013 and 2014 Bristol Academy and Birmingham City had unlikely title challenges that in both cases only failed on the last day of the season. But now the WSL resembles what the Premier League was before this season. It is likely to be a race between Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal with Liverpool an outside bet. Apart from the sexist anomaly of Manchester United* the same as what we expected in the Premier League this season!

If I were to predict a winner it would be Manchester City. Post the World Cup break they were the best team in the WSL last year but a thrown away 2-0 lead at Notts County and their poor form pre World Cup cost them. They have an impressive spine of Karen Bardsley, England captain Steph Houghton, Lucy Bronze and the brilliant Toni Duggan who at one stage seemed to score a great goal every week. To this can be added newly signed Swedish star Kosovare Aslani. If they avoid injuries they have a great chance.

Not that Chelsea – unlike their men – will surrender their title easily. They have star players Emi Aluko, Fran Kirby and reigning PFA player of the year Ji So-yun. Like City they have strengthened their squad with the signing of Gemma Davison and the experienced Karen Carney.  They will go close again.

Although Arsenal are not the dominant force of old they are probably third favourites. They have experience – Kelly Smith, Emma Byrne, Casey Stoney and new signing Fara Williams as well as young talent like Young Player of the Year Leah Williamson, Jordan Nobbs and Danielle Carter. If anyone can challenge Chelsea and City it is this team especially if Nigeria star Asiant Oshoala has adapted to the WSL after an injury hit first season at Liverpool.

Talking of which… it is anybody’s guess what Liverpool will do this season. The two time Champions crashed to seventh out of eight last season and as a result changes have been made with a new manager in Scott Rogers and nine players leaving and nine players arriving. All these changes will probably mean a poor start as a 0-2 FA Cup defeat to Manchester City suggests. But I still suspect they will improve on last season.

If the WSL is to have a “Leicester” this year it could be Notts County. They got to both Cup Finals last year but lost to Chelsea (FA Cup) and Arsenal (Continental Cup). They have in my opinion the League’s best goalkeeper Carly Telford, the unlucky Laura Bassett and strikers Ellen White and Jess Clarke. And getting experienced Rachael Yankey on loan could be a coup. The “Lady Pies” should not finish lower than fourth and could break into the top three.

Sunderland were the first club promoted to WSL on merit and led by prodigy Beth Mead never looked like being relegated and at one stage topped the table. They will hope Mead like Harry Kane is no one season wonder. If she is not (and I don’t think she will be) they will be safe. This season there are two promoted clubs. After the injustice of 2014 Doncaster Belles are back in WSL 1.  With the experienced of Sue Smith and Natasha Dowie they should be good enough to survive especially if WSL 2 top scorer Courtney Sweetman-Kirk can adapt to WSL 1 as well as Mead did. The second promoted side Reading could find it harder with a young team lacking in stars after they lost Fran Kirby to Chelsea after last year’s World Cup. Their target will be eighth place avoiding the one relegation place.

Which they could do. Birmingham City – who nearly won the League in 2014 – could be in serious trouble this time. They scored just seven League goals last season and three of those were penalties. And they have lost their best player Karen Carney to Chelsea. All the other teams seem to have more goal scoring threat and it is a good bet that the city of Birmingham will lose its WSL 1 team as well as it’s Premier League team (Aston Villa who are certainties to go down).

One thing is certain. The WSL will be competitive again this year. The last three seasons have seen the title decided only on the last day and there is no reason to expect anything different. If I had to predict I’d say Manchester City but my hope is that the League continues to grow. If it does it will be despite the FA not because of them.

*Who STILL don’t have a women’s team.