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Alex Standish questions the motives of those promoting women's football

Can women kick it?

'By 2010 women's football will be as important as the men's', suggests FIFA's general secretary Joseph S Blatter. I hope not, because, to me, the likes of Blatter have another agenda which has little to do with equality of the sexes.

It is suddenly fashionable to promote women's football. Earlier this year the major BBC drama series Playing the Field brought the lives and loves of women footballers into the nation's living rooms. The BBC also insists on at least one female player per team in its staff five-a-side league.

The football authorities too now take the women's game more seriously. In 1991 the FA ruled that girls could play alongside boys in teams up to the age of 11. The English School's Football Association has recently introduced four competitions for schoolgirl teams, each with corporate sponsorship; at under-16s level the Vimto Trophy this year attracted 500 school teams, a fivefold increase since the competition started two years ago.

When Sue Lopez was appointed women's international officer as recently as 1991, she found that the England players could not wear their shoddy, ill-fitting training suits, and had only one set of kits which they had to wash themselves after each match. By the time of the second women's World Cup in Sweden in 1995, Umbro was providing every England player with 15 shirts, each with their own name on, enough for them to swap shirts as the men's team have long done.

The authorities were not always so friendly towards the women's game. In 1921 the FA banned women's teams from playing in affiliated club grounds, amid concerns over the effect which playing a 'man's game' would have on the flower of English womanhood and her reproductive system. That ban was not lifted until 1970, and women's football was not really seen as important until the 1990s.

So why this sudden enthusiasm for celebrating a slower inferior version of the real thing? It is good that girls and women can now enjoy football, and more are taking up the opportunity. But it remains very much a minority sport (15 000 players in 600 clubs in England) attracting little public interest. Arsenal ladies might have matched the trophy-winning performance of the men's team last season, but the women play their games at Potter's Bar FC in front of a handful of spectators - a far cry from sold-out Highbury.

Clearly the promotion of women's football is not tapping into a huge demand. This suggests there is something else going on. It seems to me that the female game is being used as a means of changing the game, for everybody, away from an aggressive, competitive game and into a more 'feminised' sport.

If women are to play a part in football then the game needs to change, because it is assumed that women play football differently. FIFA's comments following the 1995 women's world championship were instructive: 'It was gratifying to see women's football is evolving a style of its own. The women have inevitably adopted many elements of the men's game, but they have integrated them into a distinctive women's style of play, characterised by a certain elegance which has prevailed over a more robust impersonation of the men's game.' For 'distinctive style' read 'not as good', and for 'a certain elegance' read 'softness'. FIFA also expressed concern that some women's teams were using tactics to 'outmanoeuvre' their opponents. 'Tactical progress is obviously necessary but in the long run it could reach a stage where women's squads play more for the final score than for the game itself.'

Apparently FIFA thinks women are (and ought to be) more concerned that their match is pretty to watch than they are with winning. Isn't the whole point of a competitive game to try to win it? FIFA also drew attention to rough play and suggested that this 'occasionally affected the quality of the game'. But why should women play the game any differently to men? Surely they want to compete just as much as the men do?

The way in which female players are being used to change the game is most clearly exemplified in mixed football. Lisa plays for the Vikings team in the BBC five-a-side league, where 'referees watch out for the rough behaviour of the men towards the women'. She recalls one incident when a bloke shoulder-barged a woman (a legal manoeuvre according to the rules) and the referee blew for a free-kick, telling the man that 'you can't do that to a lady'. When Lisa protested about the differential treatment the referee corrected himself: 'Sorry! You can't do that to anybody.'

Over recent years the men's game has moved a considerable distance down the road of 'feminisation' and away from physical contact, due mainly to the actions of football's governing bodies. Both USA '94 and Euro '96 set precedents for handing out yellow cards for tackles that previously were considered part of the game. This has now reached the stage where mere physical contact between players, such as a hand on a shoulder, may be considered foul play. Any contact with the goalkeeper has been virtually outlawed. France '98 promises more moves towards outlawing physical contact. FIFA has announced that a foul tackle from behind will result in instant dismissal. Mistime any challenge and you are off.

I am not trying to support dangerous tackles; no doubt the law changes were initially conceived as a way of protecting skilful players. But in the end, limiting physical contact restricts a player's ability to compete for the ball. The game is not just about passing and scoring - how can you do that if you don't have the ball? Winning the ball usually demands a physical challenge, pitting individual against individual, a key part of the game. To remove physical contact would be to reduce football to something more like basketball, with long mundane spells of passing, more goals and less moments of genuine excitement. And how can you truly be a skilful player if you need protecting from tackles? To reduce the physical element of football is to change the nature of the game itself, to one that is less competitive, less exciting and less demanding of players.

As veteran journalist Ken Jones comments in response to FIFA's plans to crack down on tackles in France '98: 'Some of the most thrilling football in World Cup history was made possible by ruthless acts of intervention. The orange glow of Dutch football in the 1974 finals would not have been possible without the aggression of the two militant midfielders, Johan Neeskens and Wim Van Hanegem, who could be relied upon to regain possession.' The article was entitled 'They fail to understand that football is nothing without passion' (Independent, 12 March 1998).

Alongside the 'feminisation' of football, 'fair play' leagues are becoming less of a joke as they impinge on the outcome of competitions. In January of this year UEFA suggested that England's additional place in next season's European competitions, awarded for the country's success in the European fair play league, could go to the club with the best fair play record. So a club could be relegated from the premiership (partly because its players were not competitive enough) and still play in Europe.

It seems as if football is being transformed into a game for weak individuals who need to apologise after tackles, need protecting from physical contact, cannot play on bumpy pitches or in the snow (unless they have gloves and tights on) and need the protection of a tribunal when somebody calls them a name.

Through trends like the artificial promotion of women's football, the implicit message being forced upon us all is to be less competitive, less aggressive, less passionate, less prepared to take risks, and instead to be more passive, more polite and more cautious. This new set of football rules perfectly reflect the values of Tony Blair's paternalistic Britain.

Girls and women should play football if they want to, no differently from how the men play it, as a full-blooded contest, a competitive game where strong-minded individuals succeed. As Lisa puts it, 'It's a chance to get away from everyday life, release aggression and become totally focused on the game'. We should expect no less from football and no less from life.

Reproduced from LM issue 111, June 1998

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