Changing the narrative of the game – Brian McGuire

Just under four year’s ago, in the wake of the last European Championships in Finland, I let it slip to a (rather less than enlightened) student that I had watched and enjoyed the Germany-England final…

… and thought women’s football was getting better all the time. This was (more or less) his response:

“Isn’t it just a bunch of Heffers and Lesbos aimlessly booting the ball around and sometimes it ends up in the goal?”

It wasn’t said out of malice, but it was so ridiculous to me that I couldn’t help but laugh (at him, but he may never have figured that out). However, as poorly phrased as that thought was, I do think that this perception of the women’s game is one of the barriers standing between where the game finds itself now and where it might potentially be in the future.

If we disregard the trolls, misogynists and those who only watch sport if played by millionaires and covered head to foot in billion-pound corporate sponsorship, how do we get the potential fan of women’s football to give the sport a fair crack of the whip?

One thing is to remove this perception that it is a random activity whose sole selling point is a mixture of novelty and being ‘right on’ (or very PC) – the whole “look, girls play football too” thing.

Even the positive comments (while welcome) during the Olympics began to get tiring and annoying very quickly – and you found yourself wishing the conversations would move on a bit:

“They’re actually quite good technically!” – Yes, some of them are, but not ALL of them. It would be nice if the potential fan could identify the technically gifted among the teams and individuals and not simple come away from the experience with only the name “Alex Morgan” planted in his head (for reasons other than her abundant football gifts)

“It was more entertaining than the men…” – Nice of you to say, and sometimes it’s absolutely true, but some women’s games will stink the stadium out, don’t worry. Football is like that, so if you expect every game to be like the US-Canada semi-final in Manchester…well, you are going to be disappointed.

“They don’t dive or roll around or cheat like the men do” – this is supposed to be a compliment but it bugs me actually. Firstly because I do not believe many (or any) potential fan is going to buy into the women’s game simply because the players don’t dive or cheat or fake injury, and secondly because I know for a fact that this DOES happen in the women’s game (*cough* Brazil *cough*) – just not as much.

The one thing you noticed by these well-meaning, but irritating ‘positive’ reactions is that they fail to name a player, or a moment in the game, or the development of a team, or even allow themselves a honest constructive criticism of what they saw (you CAN criticise a woman player, you know, when they do make a blunder…we do it at Turbine all the time…because we expect them to do better!)

These Olympic fans turned up, thoroughly enjoyed the experience, said nice things and all…but you got the feeling (borne out by the subsequent attendances) that they weren’t necessarily coming back

The potential fan will eventually buy into the game for the same reasons he bought into men’s football…the sporting narrative. That there are titles to be fought for and won, and that means the right players being accumulated by the clubs to win them. And by the slow (or for me rapid) realisation that becoming the Champion’s of England, Germany or Europe is an incredibly difficult thing to do…

Coverage of women’s football needs to begin to shift the narrative towards this, and to be fair ESPN’s coverage of the Liverpool-Everton derby on Saturday did this well, highlighting the massive changes at Liverpool and their new aims to challenge Arsenal, the wholesale swap between the clubs, adding the necessary needle and edge in a game that – as a derby – already had needle enough.

If this is a measure of what the future coverage of the WSL is, then I think they are on the right track (but someone needs to sort out a troop of ball-boys, people – the sight of Coco Schröder having to hurdle the advertising hoarding to fetch a ball for a throw in was not good!)

Whereas the WSL is just starting it’s season, the big two winter leagues in France and Germany are beginning – slowly and much interrupted by the long winter – to head for the business end of things. On Sunday, the DFB website carried the live stream for the game between up and coming young SC Freiburg team (name dropping Melanie Leupolz, Sarah Däbritz, Anja Hegenauaer) and the league leaders and title favourites VfL Wolfsburg (which is now essentially the young half of the German national team).

With the chasing teams Turbine Potsdam and FFC Frankfurt handily winning their league games, Wolfsburg had a wobble against a good and difficult team, and went in at half-time 1-0 down to a Julianne Maier penalty. And suddenly as a Potsdam or Frankfurt fan there was the hope that Wolfsburg may slip up and let your team capitalise.

It was just like being a Manchester City fan and watching United trail 1-0 at half time to say, Swansea City. The hope mixed with the nagging feeling that they were still good enough turn it around (in other words, it wasn’t ‘random’).

Wolfsburg certainly pressed and dominated the second half, but Freiburg had chances too. Martina Müller (an elder in the game now, but as deadly up front as anyone) snapped home an equaliser after Benkarth could only parry an Oderbrecht shot, which was annoying enough for Turbine and Frankfurt fans, but still two dropped points would be useful.

And so we watched on – comforted by the live tickers that our own teams had safely won their games – and hoped that Freiburg could hold on. And it looked as though they would – by hook and crook sometimes – until the fourth minute of injury time when suddenly Conny Pohlers (another chronic goal-addict) found herself in a yard of space in the area and crashed home a wonderful winning volley. You only had to see the celebrations of the Wolfsburg players and substitutes to see that it was a BIG goal, scored in what many might cheekily refer to as “Fergie Time”.

Gutted? Oh yes, but these are the events which make a sport worth watching which bring back the fan week-in week-out. This is the narrative the game needs to work on in the coming months – not the novelty value, or the growing awareness, or even the role-model thing – but the title races, the struggling teams, the new sudden star player, the under pressure managers, the big games and the players that make the difference between champions and also rans.

For the WSL the signs are fairly encouraging, although there desperately needs to be a genuine title challenge to Arsenal this year. It would be nice if there was more talk about the players this season – if the likes of Kim Little, Jordan Nobbs, Lucy Staniforth, Jess Clarke, Gemma Bonner and Toni Duggan were recognised names, and that the selection for the England squad for the Europeans Championship was not simply a list of twenty anonymous names (to the general public, that is).

I don’t imagine the kind of mass-market breakthrough that some may wish for, but if the sport is to be taken seriously and stabilise, I think it needs to make this transition – to “dress for the job it wants, not the job it has”, and treat its league as a genuine, difficult, and important competition that only the best women players get to win…and not have the people imagine that the Champion’s of their country were a bunch of random females.

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