“She’s got a great left foot [pause] and a lovely pair of tits.” Everybody laughed, so he said it again: “She’s got a great left foot [pause] and a lovely pair of tits.”
I was in the local club on a Friday evening, and the England v Spain game from the UEFA Women’s EURO Soccer Championships was on TV. (It’s a working men’s club, so in the past, only men were members and women weren’t allowed in, but that’s illegal now. Still, there were only men there on this occasion, as is mostly the case.)
The Women’s EURO tournament began on July 10 and finished on July 28 with a cracking final full of skill and entertainment. Germany beat Norway 1-0, after their goalie, Nadine Angerer, saved two Norway penalties. Saving one penalty is hard enough, but to save two in one game is breathtaking. Amazingly, she wasn’t the only goalie to achieve that feat during the tournament. Denmark’s Stina Petersen also saved two penalties in a group game against hosts Sweden.
In the Final, there were 27 goal attempts and 12 corners, and only one yellow card. During the entire competition, there were 56 goals scored in open play in 25 games and 15 clean sheets. During the knockout stage, two out of seven games went to extra time or penalties. There was not one red card in the entire tournament. What more could a football fan ask for?
And yet, I have only come across generally negative reactions. Not only the above example, but I heard one friend telling another that the local team he played for when he was 14 could beat the best of the women’s teams. No – he qualified his statement – the team he played for when he was 13 would beat them.
And another family with three boys aged 9, 11 and 13 and a sports-mad Dad hadn’t watched a single minute. We talked about Andy Murray at Wimbledon, the return of the Olympic stars one year on, and even the Tour de France, but when I asked “Have you watched the Women’s Euros?”, I got a blank “no” from them all.
Maybe I’m speaking with the over-zealousness of the convert, but after a slightly dour start, the Women’s Euros have been fantastic. (The ‘best Women’s EURO ever’ according the uefa.com, but of course they might be biased.) The standards of football have been high across the board. In the past, women goalies got a lot of stick, but – apart from the odd fumble – the skill level of the ‘keepers has risen dramatically, as you can see by the number of penalty saves. The outfield play has also reached lofty standards. You see confident ball skills in all areas of the field, defences are tight, midfields are creative and players run with the ball when they can, and try to beat opponents one-to-one.
Although most teams line up in the conservative 4-4-2 formation, the majority had the tactical cunning and individual skill to switch to something more fluid when they needed to. (Sadly, the England team was a disappointing exception.)
Most of all there is no screaming at the officials, time-wasting, feigning injury, or cheating. It’s been a delight. It feels like a golden age in women’s football could be about to dawn, with the emphasis on skill and ball play as much as on speed and fitness.
Attendances were high. More than 200,000 watch the matches in the stadiums while more than that number again watched on big screens in the ‘fan zones’ launched for the first time in key Swedish cities during the tournament. Around 50,000 attended the final and 10.5 million watched on TV. An estimated 55 million had already watched the tournament’s matches on television before the Final took place. Such figures outstrip previous EUROs and also challenge most of the statistics for any previous women’s soccer tournament. Karen Espelund, Chairperson of the UEFA Women’s Football Committee, said: “It’s been the best EURO ever, and I can say because I’ve been involved in all of them since 1987.”
So, why is the male sports-viewing population so dismissive?
You could easily put it all down to rampant sexism. Stereotypes tell you there is no place like a working men’s club in Northern England for beer-soaked males to express their misogyny. But I don’t think it’s down to women hatred.
Sport nowadays is packaged and marketed rigorously and ruthlessly, which has several effects:
First of all, there is a hierarchy of sports scheduling, so if you’re not at the top of that pile, you don’t get the coverage you want at the time of the year you want in the prominent slot you want when something deemed more important by the broadcasters is being televised instead.
Secondly, the saturation of the top sports means that no fan is able to have an original opinion. In the past, you went to an event and you formed your own judgement, but now you have battalions of commentators and summarisers telling you what you’re supposed to think. You watch a match and you see an incident with your own eyes, but then the pundits ‘interpret’ it differently. It’s unbelievable – and slightly frightening – how many people then go with what the expert has said rather than with what they actually saw.
Finally, because we’re so trusting of this mixture given to us by our broadcasters, we’re not brave enough to break the rules. Although I must give credit to the BBC for the excellent coverage of the Women’s Euros this year, we still don’t see how it fits into the bigger menu laid out for us by television, so we don’t know what to think or say about it.
I’ll give this example: locally, we have an amateur football league called The Northern League. Most of the players are paid no more than travel expenses, but many of them have been at the fringes of the professional game at some time. They will likely have been at the academy of one of the Premier League clubs as a teenager, or even played a few seasons in the lower divisions.
Like women’s football, the standards of fitness and skill are high – not much lower than the professional men’s game. And where there might be the occasion ‘howler’, most games are fast, skilful and full of commitment. And there is also a blatant lack of the histrionics, referee-abuse and gamesmanship of the game at its upper echelons.
Now, in the last seven years, my local team Consett AFC has finished second three times and fourth once in the Northern League, and yet the average home crowd is about 150, which for a town of around 27,000 is pitiful. The huge majority of football followers in Consett prefer to watch – and talk about – the two Premier League teams in the region, both of which are about 12 miles away.
So, actually I don’t think many men are genuinely die-hard sports fans. I believe sport gives them a set of data and pre-formed opinions that they can use for social interaction, in the same way that disparaging comments about the wife or other women also give common ground for male-male discourse. (And also in the same way as disparaging comments by women about their husbands and other men do for female-female conversation.)
The first example – ‘sweet left foot; nice pair of tits’ – shows the dichotomy that takes place when two of those pre-programmed responses clash. I’m supposed to be knowledgeable about football, but I’m also supposed to be disparaging about the women’s game. So what do I do here?
“Help! BBC! ITV! SKY Sports! Please tell me what to think!”