Goals are goals
In January, after Chelsea beat West Ham 4-2, the Sun ran the headline: ‘Cuthbert Harder! Chelsea scorers sound like posh people having sex.’ Erin Cuthbert tweeted that she wished ‘people reported on the actual match reports and women’s football with the same level of enthusiasm’. The article was eventually removed from the Sun’s website even though Piers Morgan defended it: ‘Calm down ladies, it’s called HUMOUR. This kind of stuff happens to male players all the time. Get over yourselves.’ My eyes cannot roll back far enough.
Despite the disparity in reporting on men’s and women’s football there is a growing appetite for a game that has been fully professional in England only since 2018. The BBC introduced its coverage of Euro 2022 with a recorded message from the actress Natalie Portman, who recently set up a football team in LA. (Angel City FC’s other investors include Serena Williams, Jessica Chastain, Eva Longoria and Mia Hamm.) ‘Please let’s not focus on this being women’s football,’ Portman said. ‘Skill is skill. Goals are goals. Football is football.’
England won their opening game against Austria 1-0. As the tournament progressed the manager, Sarina Wiegman, missed a few matches because of Covid. But the team paid attention to whatever remote advice she was giving them, and played tight, comprehensive football, scoring twenty goals in five games and conceding only one.
Wiegman’s tenure began last September. Her predecessor, Phil Neville, wasn’t an obvious fit with a women’s football team. His wife once revealed he had never used an iron or a mop, and it was while Neville was manager that the Lionesses advertised washing powder. He quit in January 2021 rather than see out the last six months of his contract, and Hege Riise filled in till Wiegman could start. I’d rather see a woman in the job, in part because a female manager is more likely to be in it for the long haul rather than using women’s football as a stepping stone into the men’s arena.
There are other reasons to want a woman to coach a women’s team. In 2020 the Chelsea manager, Emma Hayes, announced that players would have their training programmes tailored to their menstrual cycles to reduce the risk of soft tissue injuries. Since then Chelsea have won both the Women’s Super League and the FA Cup.
The England women’s squad is less racially diverse than the men’s. A lot of the commentary on this tournament has included variations on Marian White Edelman’s observation that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see.’ It’s a double-edged sword: we can now see professional women footballers but an opportunity will surely be missed if England don’t look to develop multicultural talent. As Tziarra King, who now plays for OL Reign in Seattle, tweeted in 2020:
I’ve always felt some type of way about straight ponytails being the symbol for ‘women’, especially in sports. I’ve got x amount of soccer trophies in my basement with ponytails and every time I saw that as a kid I thought ‘this was not made for me.’
France are an incredibly skilful side as well as a racially diverse one. Their left back, Sakina Karchaoui, is second only to the England captain, Leah Williamson, for most balls won in the competition. They were unlucky not to get to the final, losing 2-1 to Germany in the semis. Going into the Euros, Sweden were ranked second in the world (behind the US). But they didn’t have an easy run, another sign of how competitive play has been in this tournament, and England knocked them out 4-0 in the semifinals. Ian Wright said that Alessia Russo’s back-heel, which nutmegged the Swedish keeper, was his goal of the year.
The most repeated criticism of the women’s game is that the goalkeeping is bad but time and time again Mary Earps has proved that assessment wrong. Whether or not England beat Germany on Sunday, they should ‘put a smile on people’s faces’, as Fran Kirby has said. ‘They may be going through a hard time in terms of the rising fuel costs and the cost of living right now. Hopefully we can give people an escape for ninety-plus minutes when they turn their TVs on.’ And maybe they will win, and England’s women will bring football home.