The good, the bad and the clueless…

LOOKING at the rapidly developing world of women’s football by bringing you some of the good new stories doing the rounds and, occasionally, offering tales you have to squint at between your fingers, or view from an even safer place, behind the sofa perhaps… 

The Good

USA

The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) now has all its World Cup stars back in domestic action. Week 14 of the season saw a significant bounce in attendances, surely due to the return of their all-conquering US National Women’s Team who now redistribute across each of the league’s nine teams.

The Portland Thorns would have been forgiven for thinking they were playing Utah Royals at home (they weren’t) with nearly 16,000 showing up to witness an exciting 2-2 draw at Rio Tinto Stadium that featured goals from Team USA’s Christen Press (Utah) and Lindsey Horan (Portland).          

Chicago Red Stars edged a 2-1 victory over North Carolina Courage in front of a “sell out” 17,388 crowd. Here, Australian hot-shot Sam Kerr would take centre stage at the SeatGeek stadium with a brilliant ‘double nutmeg’ finish to notch her tenth goal of the season, knocking NCC off the top of the table in the process. (2:05 in video below)

Chicago Red Stars beat North Carolina Courage in Week 14 of the NWSL

There was another sell-out for Washington Spirit’s defeat at the hands of Houston Dash – a more modest 5,500 – while Orlando edged out Sky Blue FC 1-0 before 9,415 spectators.

Once again, following a successful World Cup, there is a feeling of momentum around women’s soccer in the USA. As well as the international players staying visible promoting their return to league action and (justifiably) pushing their right to equal pay with their men’s international set-up, ESPN has signed up to broadcast 14 pre-selected league games until the end of the season on its ESPNEWS and ESPN2 platforms. The championship semi-finals and the final will go out on the latter.

Budweiser’s announcement that they would jump in as beer sponsor, suggests the league and the club owners are looking beyond the traditional target market of parents and daughters / teenagers to also engage with adult soccer-watching audiences.

But, it’s worth remembering that – considering America’s unarguable position at the top of the international scene since the early 1990’s – they’ve had a couple of goes at this already. Both WUSA and the WPS failed financially.

Just nine clubs currently play in the NWSL right across the country and, outside of the three or four international squad players each club is allocated, the remaining 20-22 players share a capped pot of approximately $421k. A living wage? Barely.

Prior to ESPN, the TV deal struck with A+E Network in 2017 ended a year early due to slower returns on investment than expected. There’s no guarantee that armchair viewers will be enticed long-term even though the standard of football (sorry, soccer) is generally the best in the women’s game.

On top of that, crowds need to grow.  This is important in terms of both revenue and credibility.  In a country as vast as the United States seeing your local NSWT team can mean a 200, 300, maybe a 500-mile journey. Perhaps we could ship over some hardy Sunderland, Carlisle or Plymouth fans from England. They know this world…

The return of the USWNT players to their clubs should enable attendances to bounce for a while, that has been the pattern before. But can the NWSL sustain it, firstly to increase the salaries of the current professional players and then to expand the league to include more teams?

Whether it can or not, a longer-term challenge for the NWSL will be whether its teams are willing or able to compete with the levels of investment that European clubs are starting to make for their women’s organisations. 

Spending in Europe is set to rise with Olympique Lyonnais Féminin again leading the way from their French stronghold. Meanwhile, in England, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur have arrived in the FA Women’s Super League, joining several other top Premier League clubs already well ensconced.

Top players across the planet will be drawn to those clubs / leagues that can offer an attractive salary, excellent facilities and the opportunity to improve their game. Those college-grown US players not currently financed by US Soccer as part of the international set-up will surely be keeping an eye on the potential spoils on offer…

EUROPEAN UNDER-19 CHAMPIONSHIPS

Scotland has been hosting the Women’s European Under-19 Championships. England are already out but did at least win their final group game against Belgium. Scotland also failed to qualify, losing all three of their group games including a 4-0 defeat to the Netherlands.

Germany, France, the Netherlands and Spain move through to the semi-finals.

SOUTH AFRICA

The next development step for women’s football in South Africa is underway with the South African Football Association’s (SAFA) announcement last week that a National Women’s League will launch at the end of August 2019.

This follows on from SAFA confirming that they were preparing to invest 10million Rand in funding a competition geared towards improving the quality of Banyana Banyana’s international women’s squad, which played in its first World Cup this year.

Fixtures have been prepared for twelve teams, scheduled to complement FIFA commitments and the Tokyo Olympics. The teams chosen to take part include:

  • Bloemfontein Celtic;
  • Coal City Wizards;
  • Durban Ladies;
  • First Touch Academy;
  • Golden Ladies;
  • Mamelodi Sundowns;
  • Richmond United;
  • Thunderbirds;
  • Tsunami Queens;
  • Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) Ladies;
  • The University of Johannesburg; and
  • The University of the Western Cape.

The Bad

ARGENTINA

No place at the PanAm games for outspoken Estefanía Banini.

No such progress for the Argentinian Women’s Football set-up. They are heading off in the wrong direction again.

Head Coach, Carlos Borrello, has dropped star captain Estefanía Banini, along with several others, from his Pan American Games squad. During the World Cup, Banini, and colleagues Ruth Bravo and Gaby Garton, criticised the AFA and their appointed management team for poor professionalism, insufficient resources, inadequate training methods and a continuing lack of respect.

It was already a matter of record with the press pack in France how much the Argentine players had struggled against prevailing attitudes and a complete lack of investment in the international team, culminating in an all-out strike in 2017.  The players were furnished with old men’s jerseys at the last Copa América Femenina tournament and have since claimed that even basic AFA subsidies were not paid to them.

Despite countless reasons for internal tension, Argentina gained many admirers during their time in France, with some determined displays that included holding former winners Japan to a goalless draw and coming back from 3-0 down to draw 3-3 with Scotland in the last 20 minutes of their group match.

Banini, a creative wide player, arrested her natural instincts to drive forward and take opponents on in order to support the team’s need for organisation, discipline and defensive shape. Consequently, they were hard to beat which was Borrello’s chief aim and – one might conclude – that the Levante attacker demonstrated exemplary leadership through her willingness to put team before self. The coach, however, has not arrived at this conclusion.

Other players missing from the Copa squad include Santos striker Sole Jaimes and the excellent Florencia Bonsegundo. Bonsegundo, reportedly, was selected but has refused to join the squad in solidarity with her teammates.

The players put their own time and money into fitness and conditioning to make up for the lack of federation support. Their determination and drive has enabled them to reach the requisite standards to play internationally, in turn providing a shop window for American and European clubs to see them in action.

Now a number of Argentine players have seen and / or experienced directly the way that clubs and other international set-ups are investing their women footballers, preparing properly, adopting modern training approaches and, consequently, raising the bar. Naturally they will compare and contrast. But woe betide anyone who verbalises these concerns to the AFA.

Even if you park the obvious sexism, blatant disrespect and childish disposition inherent in the AFA’s decision to drop Banini and her teammates for a moment, from a sporting point of view (and, frankly a patriotic one), there’s surely no better example of how to ‘cut off your nose to spite your face’.

Expect this one to rumble on…

“The male leaders of Argentinian football have made it clear that they are not only unwilling to promote gender equality but plan to oppose it… Borrello’s exclusion of the players who spoke out is a classic disciplining action: punish to silence.”

Pablo Alabarces and Brenda Elsey, The Equalizer, 19/7/2019

The Clueless

SCOTTISH PREMIER LEAGUE

Oh dear… SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster donated 100 Mitre Delta Max Plus footballs to women’s chief executive Fiona McIntyre. Picture: Ross Brownlee/SNS

Journalist, Alan Patullo, called out an extra-ordinary moment of, erm, ‘unashamed generosity’ by the Scottish Premier Football League in the Scotsman last week.

He gives his take on Neil Doncaster’s donation of 100 footballs to the Scottish Women’s Football League on the back of all the excitement and interest generated by the World Cup.

I won’t add anymore; Alan says it perfectly…

Click to read the full article here.

FIFA

Ok, perhaps a bit harsh to file under ‘clueless’, but FIFA’s decision to extend the next Women’s World Cup roster to 32 teams is a hastily conceived approach that looks likely to damage and dilute the quality standards that were on offer at France 2019 – unless, in my view, they are proposing to put in a significantly higher percentage of European sides.

South America is not the powerhouse it is in the men’s game – not hard to see why when you consider the section on Argentina above.

Asia, Africa and Central America may be able to develop perhaps one more tournament quality team each, but it’s not unreasonable to question whether they will end up being cannon fodder like Thailand for the top sides.

The desire to develop the game rapidly is admirable but should not be a default setting on what represents best policy.  The last thing the Women’s World Cup needs is a host of results upwards of 5-0. 

Call me a cynic, but I suspect FIFA internal politics and a grab for cash may well be driving their priorities in this instance…

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