I like women’s football as much as men’s football. And I admit it!

Birgit Prinz – German legend

I’m fuzzy on exactly when I started watching women’s football, but I do recall seeing Germany’s Birgit Prinz (pictured) on TV and thinking wow, now she’s a player. I suspect I viewed her through the prism of men’s football – seeing her as a female analogue to Lothar Matthäus or Michael Ballack perhaps – helping ‘normalise’ something that looked unusual to me at the time. That doesn’t happen these days. Now when I watch women footballers, I just see footballers.

Back then, Hope Powell was England Head Coach and Arsenal forward, Kelly Smith, was in her pomp with the Arsenal Ladies (as they were known). So, let’s say I started watching women’s football around 2007 as that was a World Cup Year. I definitely wasn’t watching Birgit in the Frauen-Bundesliga. 

I remained aware of Arsenal’s domestic dominance over the next few years and watched the FA Women’s Cup Final if it happened to be on. World Cup 2011 came and went and I largely missed it, but did see the final between the USA and Japan, looking on with (surely) the same bewilderment as Team America fans while the Nadeshiko twice came back from being a goal down to force a penalty shoot-out and then win it.

By then my own club team, AFC Wimbledon, were back in the football league which of course was very exciting, and my spare time was spent trawling (not trolling) online forums to talk about how great / awful it all was depending on that week’s result. Then my wife and I had a son, George. Soon after daughter, Emily, arrived. I bought a house and got embroiled in building a career. Long hours, blah, blah, blah. Women’s football receded beyond even background noise.

Then, for Canada 2015, BBC television (paid for by UK citizens through an annual licence fee) really got behind the tournament. They didn’t need to rely on commercial advertising revenues to justify screening it and, at the same time, they could promote gender equality, sporting inclusivity and good old-fashioned athletic excellence which sit close to the heart of the corporation’s core values. Canada held a terrific tournament, home fans bought into it in a big way, with over 1.3 million spectators attending matches. The Americans ended up worthy winners, exorcising their 2011 demons by hammering Japan 5-2 in the final. As a contest it was a done deal inside 30 minutes.

The BBC did a good job on the coverage, putting established commentators from their flagship Premier League highlights shows alongside new female voices, with punditry from former women players who were probably astonished at how quickly things were all moving since their time on the pitch.  On the side, I got some insight into the domestic game: I found out that Chelsea had got good (drat! 😉), Liverpool had won a league title (I know, right?) And that Manchester City were starting to see value in taking the Women’s game seriously and making a significant investment. TV network ESPN dabbled with coverage of domestic games, opening the way for other commercial broadcasters in the UK to consider whether they should be looking closer at this.

Channel 4 took the plunge, securing the rights to Euro 2017, although I’m pretty sure I remember watching live coverage of England’s qualifying campaign on the BBC’s interactive service – I stand to be corrected there. Either way, when the championships came around, I saw every game. The Netherlands were great hosts and won the trophy – defeating England comfortably on the way. The Oranje played great football with a smile on their face, players at the top of their game. It was fantastic. Fans from all countries were brilliant, creating spectacle through colour and enthusiasm and passion; so essential to the success of these events.

There were some excellent matches as well. International federations were clearly developing their women’s teams and it showed on the pitch. My eyes were opened to the very real potential of the women’s game and some amazing individual players: the flair and technical skill of Dzenifer Marozsan; the tenacity and pace of forward Pernille Harder; Lieke Martens’ propensity to swing in from the left and strike from 20 yards; Amandine Henry gliding around in the French midfield and driving their transition between defence and attack.

My son is a full-back for his little league team and I started digging out on-line clips of Theresa Nielsen or Lucy Bronze to show him good positioning relative to where the ball was on the pitch – which he would ignore (he’s not a watcher).

I got into online coverage of our teams in the European Women’s Champions League, where all roads lead inevitably to the fearsome ‘Galacticos’ of Olympique Lyonnais.

When England’s Jodie Taylor made her move to the US, I started watching Seattle Reign’s You Tube channel (now Reign FC). That introduced me to the amazing Megan Rapinoe. Then a short hop into the wider National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) which is full of terrific players from all over the world.

After Euro 2017, the Beeb stealthily continued to ramp up its FAWSL coverage in England and BT Sport also jumped in to pick up the rights to a few domestic games. Season 2018/19 was the first time I found myself tuning into the FAWSL highlights on BBCi with the same unthinking regularity that I would switch on Match of the Day on a Saturday night. Enjoying the continuing emergence of midfielder Georgia Stanway while secretly hoping Manchester City wouldn’t win everything; marvelling at Fran Kirby’s close control in unfeasibly tight spaces; feeling absolutely gutted for Jordan Nobbs when it became clear that she wouldn’t be going to the World Cup through injury (but could at least console herself that she played a big part in Arsenal’s first league title for seven years).

I watch the TV coverage of the Women’s Super League in England and I enjoy it. It’s a functional highlights show for now, but respectful. It takes the sport seriously and the dedication of the players and coaches comes over loud and clear. The grounds generally are small and the attendances modest. The presenters, commentators and pundits are gaining confidence and clearly love what they are doing. I acknowledge that it has the look of lower league / non-league football on the telly but have a foresight to realise that doesn’t mean it always will. Let’s not forget that the season just gone was the first time ever that all players in the top English division were paid professionals.

Developing a considerably bigger audience in the next few years is one of the central challenges facing those driving the game forward. This is what will attract wider media interest, more lucrative sponsorship and further club investment. Initiatives like the BBC’s Change the Game will be key to further raising the profile of women’s sport this summer and the FIFA Women’s World Cup offers a centrepiece around which to build a new generation of fans and to attract more female participants of all ages on to the playing fields / courts.

Blogs like this one – and others, already established or yet to be – can hopefully play their part, just loving the game and keeping the conversation going in between those periods of bright media spotlight around international championships.  The domestic game, after all, is where the next growth step-change needs to happen.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’d never been to a live game before this week even though: 1) my club, AFC Wimbledon, have a women’s team, and 2) Chelsea now own Kingsmeadow and their women groundshare with the Wombles. I suppose I could argue that thousands of fans across the UK enthusiastically support teams or follow sports they’ve never actually seen live. But it didn’t feel right, scribing about something that I hadn’t experienced first-hand.

So, England v New Zealand at the Amex, Brighton changed all that on May 31st.  Johnny Come Latish was there, waving the English players off before their World Cup adventure. We got beat, playing pretty well to be fair, but lacking that final ball. The atmosphere was terrific. I’ll be going again.

It’s an exciting time for the game. Momentum is building…

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