Women inferior to men in sports? Not when it comes to entertainment
Jim White hits back at those who scoff at women's sport - particularly the World Cup - and those who suggest they're less important than the men.
Even as the England womens team are poised on the brink of a World Cup final, the misogyny continues unabated. They can’t pass, we are told constantly on Twitter and in newspaper columns, they can’t run, their tactical appreciation is limited. The sound of scoffery and hurrumphing fills the airwaves.
Women’s football, runs the whiney complaint, is no match for the real thing. So why is everyone getting so excited about what is going on in Canada? It is ersatz, a parody of the proper game.
Which is entirely to miss the point.
Of course England’s women footballers are no direct match for their male counterparts. The idea that Lucy Bronze or Gill Scott or Steph Houghton could turn out for Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea or even Forest Green, Gateshead and Bishop Auckland is absurd. Physically these elite women players are nowhere near the men. And never could be.
But here’s the thing: unlike their male peers they have reached a World Cup semi-final. And that in itself is something worth celebrating.
England’s women are currently the fourth best in the world, with a chance this evening of moving towards becoming the number one. What an achievement that would be.
I am spending my time over the next fortnight at Wimbledon, a place which, after years of struggle, has latterly come to terms with the fact that women’s sport, while not sharing the power and physicality of men’s, can provide equal drama, equal theatre, equal passion.
Sure, Serena Williams might struggle to hold a set against Andy Murray. But to watch her in action is to see athleticism and power in astonishing alignment, a supreme display of agility and ability. Not to mention biceps that could crush a man’s skull at forty paces.
And this is the point about what is going on in Canada: it is thrilling as a drama. Sure, this England team might struggle against, say, Port Vale's men. But so what? They have beaten Mexico, Colombia, Norway and Canada - some of their most formidable peers. And in doing so they have opened our eyes to the possibility of the women’s game in their homeland.
Carly Telford #21, Siobhan Chamberlain #13 and Toni Duggan #18 of England celebrate after defeating Canada during the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 Quarter Final match between England and Canada June 27, 2015AFP
We had long known that more than a million females play the game regularly in England, making it the fourth most participated-in team sport after men’s football, rugby and cricket. We also knew that at the current rate of growth, it will have risen to second in the table by 2018.
We knew too that 50,000 people had turned up to Wembley to watch the women play Germany in a friendly. And we were aware that at clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City, their women’s team now use the world beating training facilities on an almost equal footing. At City, the women play home games in the superb new 15,000 seater academy stadium in the Etihad campus.
But what has happened in Canada is confirmation – for the first time for many - that this is not simply a grassroots explosion but that the game at the top is worth watching. It is a spectacle, not just a pastime.
Indeed, the women have, by their success, tapped into an urgent craving among sports fans in England. The English are often wrongly characterised by a love for glorious failure. But as has been demonstrated over the past fortnight, what the nation craves far more than near misses is success.
From the moment progress was secured by the Lionesses, the positive news bloomed across the media. Everywhere you looked there were tributes to the gloriously refreshing female players, most taking the irresistible opportunity to take a swipe at our over-paid, under-achieving male footballers and contrasting the women’s innocent, whole-hearted endeavour with their male counterparts assumed venality and cynicism.
It didn’t stop the misogynists, of course. Actually, such praise seemed to wind them up into ever-louder complaints.
England celebrates beating Norway in the round of sixteen in the FIFA 2015 women's World CupReuters
The problem for the critics is that now Bronze, Houghton, Scott and their team-mates have piqued the interest, there will be many more of the curious and the expectant tuning in to the live broadcast. Tonight’s game will be a huge television experience. If not quite touching the heights of the record 18 million who tuned in to the Taylor/Davis snooker final 30 years ago, the BBC are hoping for a bumper post-midnight viewing audience.
Here is the women’s opportunity. We are all watching, now they can deliver. And in the process silence those doubters who bemoan such a vivid validation of athletic excellence.
For the Lionesses it won’t be an easy task. The Japanese are the current world champions, their players gracing many of the better clubs in England and America.
But for the England players, poised on the very brink of becoming household names, the rewards for success are tantalising. The knock on effect on crowds attending Women’s Super League matches (current average just 750) will be significant and potentially long-term.
This time victory will change their game. So, no pressure there then.