A sell-out crowd will watch England women’s football team play Germany at Wembley on Sunday. Is it passing fad or do women offer the prospect of a bright and successful future for the national game?
Women’s football in the UK is going through a golden age. The England women’s football team is currently ranked seventh in the world, having won all 10 games in qualifying for the 2015 World Cup in Canada.
That success is reflected in the growing popularity of women’s football. England’s match this weekend against Germany, ranked number two in the world, will be the best-attended women’s football match ever in the UK. The FA had anticipated a gate of 30,000, but 55,000 tickets have been sold.
The clean-cut image of the women’s game is in contrast to the men’s game, where scandal follows controversy on an almost weekly basis. The past few days alone have seen Wigan hiring manager Malky Mackay, despite his questionable views, and the singing of an anti-IRA song by England supporters. Meanwhile, Sheffield United have only just moved to draw a line under the row over convicted rapist Ched Evans.
So how is the women’s game different from its male equivalent? In purely physical terms, there is an obvious contrast – just as there is in tennis, for example.
But former Arsenal and England defender Faye White (pictured above) believes training and coaching mean technical levels in the women’s game in England are undoubtedly improving.
Tactical and technical has always been the biggest gulf between men’s and women’s football, though that gulf is narrowing. Faye White, former England defender
“Tactical and technical has always been the biggest gulf between men’s and women’s football, though that gulf is narrowing,” she told Channel 4 News.
“The women’s game is at a slower speed. Different physical attributes mean women couldn’t compete with men. But if you look at skill, then you can definitely compare the sexes.
“Comparing a free kick, for example, there’s not much difference as far as the technique is concerned – although the power and strength will be different.”
Aside from on-the-pitch differences, there is also a contrast in mood between men’s and women’s games. The atmosphere at Wembley when the England men’s team are playing is not always family-friendly.
But the expectation is that Sunday’s match with Germany will be an exciting game played in front of an enthusiastic but friendly crowd.
PFA Head of Quality and Diversity Simone Pound agrees. “I enjoy attending both men’s and women’s games,” she told Channel 4 News. “The atmosphere at women’s matches is more of a whole-family event. It’s something you can take your children, your partner, your parents to.
“It’s a lot more affordable and it’s more good-natured – although everyone’s obviously very committed.”
Faye White agrees. She says women’s football crowds are more likely to see the event as a family day out – something that is also reflected by ticket prices.
“At an England women’s game, people have different expectations. They’re coming to support the team and to see the game, but they have fewer prejudices.”
Germany’s Josephine Hennin passes to Anja Mittag (Getty Images)
So the women’s game in England is on the rise. The national side is on a roll, and people like watching what is a different style of football, played in an enthusiastic but generally benign atmosphere. Is the trend reflected across the world?
In the United States, which has won the Women’s World Cup three times since it started in 1991, the women’s game arguably enjoys more prominence than its male counterpart. That, according to Faye White, is because US soccer has never had to fight the perception that it is primarily for men. The Portland Thorns women’s team regularly get five-figure attendances.
The atmosphere at women’s matches is more of a whole-family event. It’s something you can take your children, your partner, your parents to. Simone Pound, PFA
Things are different in Germany, where for the past half-century the national men’s side has been a post-war sporting success. The women’s team nonetheless won the 2003 and 2007 World Cups. “They have a better following domestically and internationally,” says Faye White.
But playing in the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany, she found a different mood to what she was used to in the UK. “Because of Germany’s success, following and profile, it was an atmosphere similar to the men’s game. The vibe around it was very different to what we’ll see on Sunday.
“Germany’s women’s success has made it a sport that people in general follow regularly. They have a very similar view to the men’s game. It was notable how many men were watching in Germany – and that’s similar when we’ve played women’s Champions League games.”
England’s meeting with Germany on 23 November is a landmark event for women’s football in this country. If the team wins or draws, it will put them on a par with the best in the world. But whatever happens, the women’s game looks set to thrive and grow in the coming decades.