Chris Bond: Granting women’s football equal treatment would be true legacy

IF we have learned anything from football this past week it is that we cannot accuse top Premier League players of not being hungry for the game.

But while the shameful on-field behaviour of a certain Liverpool footballer has given pundits and columnists something to get their teeth stuck into, at the same time it has brought our national game into disrepute yet again.

At its best football is a wonderful sport full of passion and power, finesse and fair play, but too often these days it seems to fall far short of its best.

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It is a far cry from the pulsating festival of sporting drama witnessed at last year’s London Olympics. Ah, do you remember those halcyon days during that golden summer?

For once there were tears of joy, rather than despair, as our sports stars actually surpassed all expectations, roared on by a nation that not only rekindled its love affair with sport but also its sense of togetherness and, dare I say, patriotism.

Suddenly we were mesmerised by sports about which, a fortnight earlier, we did not have a clue.

It is funny, though, that while I was glued to my seat watching the rowing, volleyball and the omnium (I still can’t work out the rules), the one sport I had no interest in watching was football.

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Maybe this was because football gets enough exposure as it is, or perhaps it was down to the fact that while everyone else managed to rally around Team GB, football still managed to find something to argue about.

Either way it held no interest whatsoever – at least the men’s game didn’t. For though I didn’t give two hoots about Stuart Pearce’s side (for the record they lost on penalties to South Korea in the quarter-finals), I found myself enthralled by some of the women’s matches.

And I wasn’t alone. While the men’s football was a largely forgettable spectacle, the women’s game was the exact opposite producing all manner of thrills and spills.

The United States’ women’s team retained their Olympic title by beating Japan 2-1 in a superb final, just days after they beat Canada 4-3 in a stunning semi-final match at Old Trafford that will live long in the memory of those who watched it.

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The British women’s team also made a real impact at the London Games despite being knocked out at the quarter-final stage. A record British women’s football crowd of 70,584 saw the host nation beat Brazil 1-0 at Wembley in their last group game.

It was a historic moment and gave the women’s game, certainly in this country, a level of exposure it had not had before.

People who before the Olympics barely had a passing interest in women’s football now wanted to find out more about it. The trick, of course, is keeping this momentum going which is why the announcement that the BBC are going to show this year’s Women’s European Football Championships, which kick off on July 10, is such good news.

The BBC have said they will show 16 games live from Sweden, most of which will be on BBC Three with a couple on BBC Two, including the final on July 28.

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Hope Powell’s England side, who were runners-up in 2009, finished top of their qualifying group and are among the favourites despite being drawn in a tough group that also includes France, Russia and Spain. As well as being shown live on TV, all of England’s matches will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 5 or 5 live Sports Extra.

You might think ‘well, what’s all the fuss about? Women’s football is growing in popularity and the BBC are simply reflecting this’. To a degree that’s true, but there are still plenty of football fans out there who dismiss the idea that women’s football is any good and argue that it will never be as important as the men’s game.

Maybe theyare right. The women’s game is certainly different, just as women’s tennis is different, but that is not to say it can’t be skilful or exciting.

Itis also worth remembering that at one time women’s football was almost as popular as the men’s game in this country.

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In 1920, just 25 years after the first women’s game was played, a crowd of 25,000 watched the Preston-based Dick Kerr Ladies beat a French XI 2-0 in the first international match.

The women’s game grew dramatically during the First World War, with so many men away fighting, and continued to do so even after the conflict ended and the men’s game resumed. This popularity reached its height on Boxing Day, 1920, when a crowd of 53,000 paid to see Dick Kerr’s Ladies beat 
St Helen’s Ladies 4-0 at Goodison Park.

But just as the game was blossoming the Football Association effectively stamped it out the following year by banning women from playing on Football League grounds saying, “ ... the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”.

Some people have argued that this was only part of the reason and that the powers-that-be were worried about the women’s game becoming as popular as the men’s. Either way, it was a shameful decision and it was another 50 years before the FA Council lifted the ban preventing women playing on the grounds of affiliated clubs.

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Since then women’s football has played second fiddle to the men’s game although these days the FA have a far more enlightened attitude.

The eight-strong Women’s Super League (WSL) has been going since 2011 and is being expanded from next year into two tiers of eight and 10 teams. It is part of the FA’s five-year plan to develop the game with the governing body pledging to invest a further £3.5m over the next four years.

Itis still peanuts when you compare it to the vast riches of the Premier League, but at least it is a step in the right direction.

Perhaps in years to come women will get parity with men and we will be chanting the names of our female football stars in the way we do now with the likes of Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard. Now that would be a sporting legacy worth celebrating.

and another thing

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After his four-goal demolition of poor old Real Madrid last week, Polish star Robert Lewandowski has arguably become the hottest property in Europe.

So it was interesting to hear the thoughts of a couple of our top managers on the latest goal scoring sensation.

Celtic manager Neil Lennon revealed that Borussia Dortmund’s Champions League hero was once a target for the Parkhead club before he moved for £4m in the summer of 2010.

“I actually knew about Lewandowksi when he was at Lech Poznan. He might cost a few quid more now than he did then,” said Lennon.

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West Ham manager Sam Allardyce also rues missing out on the Pole when he was in charge at Blackburn Rovers. Allardyce blamed the Volcanic ash cloud, as well as financial worries, for scuppering the potential deal for the striker.

“I think about it every time I see him play,” he said.

There are, of course, plenty of tales about the one that got away. Who knows what might have happened if Eric Cantona had joined Sheffield Wednesday, or if Diego Maradona had left Argentinos Juniors for Sheffield United.

Perhaps if they had then the Steel City and not Manchester would be our footballing Mecca.