Women’s football celebrates a TV triumph

Glee club: Bristol City’s Gemma Evans. More than 30 million women worldwide play soccer. © John Sibley

Can it be as entertaining as men’s? Yesterday the BBC and Sky announced that they will pay millions of pounds to show top matches on TV, raising hopes that equality is not far off.

It was one of the most brilliant manoeuvres anyone had ever seen. The Brazilian forward took the pass on the right foot, then flicked it onto the left and finally over the shoulder to baffle the nearest defender. Next, the number 10 wrong-footed a second opponent and whacked a shot in from 20 yards out, past the keeper and a fourth defender into the back of the net. The crowd went wild. Go-oal!

The skill was worthy of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. But the scorer was not someone earning millions of pounds in men’s football: it was a 21-year-old woman called Marta. Twelve years later, in a 2019 victory over Italy, she would break the record for the highest number of goals scored in the World Cup by any player. Her tally of 17 put her ahead of the two leading male strikers – Miroslav Klose and Ronaldo, on 16 and 15 respectively.

“She's emblematic of the women’s game on a global basis,” said Italy’s manager, Milena Bertolini. “When a lot of people have watched her over the last few years, they have really changed their mind with regards to whether women can indeed play football or not.”

Confirmation that women’s soccer is finally being taken seriously came yesterday with the news of a “landmark” deal for the Women’s Super League. The BBC and Sky Sports have reached an agreement with the FA to screen matches for the next three seasons. The fee is believed to be around £8m a season – the highest for any women’s league in the world.

Just as important as the money is the coverage. With up to 44 live games being shown on Sky Sports, and 18 on BBC1 or BBC2, this is a huge opportunity for the sport to attract new fans and new players.

Some fans claim that the women’s game is actually better to watch than the men’s. For a start, there are more goals. In the Women’s Super League you can expect to see at least three per match, whereas the average in the Premier League is around 2.75.

There are also fewer fouls – and, as a result, fewer stoppages, allowing a more free-flowing game. Men are twice as likely to be given yellow cards, and three times as likely to receive red ones. According to one referee, this is a consequence of “far too much money and far too many big egos”.

On top of that, the women’s game is more globally competitive. In 21 FIFA Men’s World Cups, only two continents – Europe and South America – have produced winning teams. The eight Women’s World Cups have been won by teams from Europe, North America and Asia.

Ticket prices are much more attractive too. The top seats at the last Women’s World Cup final cost £75 – less than a tenth of those for its male equivalent.

Finally, the female game is more tolerant. According to West Ham United’s Gilly Flaherty, “Women’s football is a sport where a player can be openly gay and no one acts any differently towards you because of it, which is a great thing.” There are no openly gay footballers in the Premier League.

Can women’s football compete with men’s?

A striking thought

Some say, yes. Female players like Marta have shown themselves to be every bit as skilful as men. In fact, the women’s game is purer than the men’s because the players commit far fewer fouls – and much less extreme ones. The FA’s deal with the BBC and Sky is a real breakthrough, giving more spectators access to the game than ever before, and it will inevitably grow bigger in the years to come.

Others argue that the women’s game may match the men’s for skill, but it will never be able to compete in terms of speed and power. It is impossible to imagine a woman with the strength of Peter Lorimer, the Leeds United striker whose shot was measured at 105 mph. And though the Women’s Super League is attracting more money, it is still a pittance compared to what the Premier League receives.

You Decide

  1. In tennis, mixed doubles exists so that men and women can play together. To what other sports could the same idea be applied?
  2. Is televised sport a poor substitute for being at a match in person?

Activities

  1. Design an emblem for your family or school that could represent a sports team.
  2. Write a short story about a woman who wins a place in a men’s sports team.

Some People Say...

“The hard days are what make you stronger… If you never had any bad days, you would never have that sense of accomplishment.”

Aly Raisman (1994 – ), American gymnast

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that women’s football first became popular during World War One. While professional sport was largely suspended, women working in factories were encouraged to play football to keep fit, and a team from the Dick, Kerr factory in Lancashire so impressed the crowds that it became England’s unofficial team. Its star player, Lily Parr, scored over 1,000 goals. But at the end of the war the FA discouraged the women’s game, worrying that it would take money away from the men’s.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether most women players will ever be paid as well as men. In the Women’s Super League, the top players can earn £200,000 a year, but many only earn around £20,000. In the last Women’s World Cup, the prize money totalled £24m, compared to £315m for the Men’s. But England, New Zealand and Norway have all agreed to pay women the same as men for international appearances.

Word Watch

Manoeuvres
Moves. In the army, the term is used for battle practice.
Lionel Messi
The world’s highest-paid footballer, he is reported to earn £107.6m a year at Barcelona.
Cristiano Ronaldo
The Portuguese striker earns less than half Messi’s wages: £46.5m a year.
Miroslav Klose
A retired German player who scored five goals in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups. Germany never lost a game in which he scored.
Ronaldo
A retired Brazilian footballer nicknamed “O Fenômeno” (The Phenomenon). At 17 he was the youngest member of the squad which won the 1994 World Cup.
Emblematic
Symbolic. An emblem was originally a badge or ornament representing a quality, family or organisation.
Women’s Super League
England’s top league for women. Created in 2010, it consists of 12 clubs.
FIFA
Short for the Fédération Internationale de Football Association. In recent years it has attracted many accusations of corruption.
Winning teams
Only eight countries have won the men’s title: Brazil, Italy, Germany, Argentina, France, Uruguay, England and Spain.
Women’s World Cups
The US has won four times, Germany twice, and Norway and Japan once each.

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