Is “Progress” Holding Back the Women’s Beautiful Game?

crowd-800-wembley

Image credit: The FA

The Women’s Football Association Cup Final was played on Saturday between Arsenal and Chelsea at Wembley Stadium in front of a record attendance of over 45,000 fans. With coverage on BBC One, this was a huge step in elevating the status of the women’s football in the UK. It was a brilliant game, full of end to end football and goals in quick succession towards the last 10 minutes of the second half, but after the final whistle I found myself thinking about how women’s sport and female athletes are spoken about in the press.

Women’s football, and women’s sport in general, doesn’t get a lot of coverage in national newspapers, nor does it get a significant amount of air time on mainstream media outlets. Things are improving, thanks to the success of the Team GB Hockey squads at London 2012 and Rio 2016, England’s Cricket World Cup win at Lord’s last summer, and more recently the historic England Netball gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. However, when women’s sport rightly gets pushed up for the coverage it should – which seems to be currently conditional on becoming the best in the world – the same questions about progression of the game and being role models come up over and over again, particularly in football. If female players, managers and coaches got a fiver for every time they were compared to their male counterparts they wouldn’t need to crowdfund to retain their top-flight professional licence, which was the case for Yeovil Town Ladies before the start of this season.

In a press conference days before the final, Chelsea manager Emma Hayes called out a journalist for asking her about being a “female role model”, to which she quite rightly replied that the same question would not be asked to male managers of women’s teams. She is only one of three female managers in the Women’s Super League 1, which contains the top 10 teams in England, and is one of the most successful. Chelsea have won both the WSL1 and the FA Cup, and reached a semi-final of the Champions League in the 6 years since her appointment. Prior to that, she was an assistant coach at Arsenal. After yesterday’s 3-1 win the club could make it a double as they are only second to the current WSL1 leaders Manchester City on goal difference with four games left of the season. Hayes added that “We have to remove the gender-specific conversation… I just see myself as a coach.” She is also currently 33-weeks pregnant with twins, and has continued to manage her team throughout her pregnancy, stating that it is her “biological right to do that.

One thing that particularly stuck out for me while watching the game on TV yesterday was something that was said in commentary. Jonathan Pearce, who was joined in the box by Sue Smith, mentioned towards the end of the game that the sound of the crowd at Wembley was “shrill” in comparison to that of a men’s game. It was such an unnecessary statement, and this choice of words got my blood boiling because it had such negative connotations. Hearing so many young girls in the stadium get excited and be passionate about the football they were seeing should never be described as painful or unpleasant to listen to. Not only is it disrespectful, it indicates a lack of experience of the game, as well as a lack of thought. If you’d been to even one women’s match before, which I’m sure Jonathan has, you would know that the crowd they attract are predominantly young and female, and this would be reflected in its overall sound. The punditry from former Lionesses and FA Cup winners Alex Scott and Rachel Brown-Finnis did not make the same mistake, as you would expect from individuals who are informed and knowledgeable on the women’s game. Aside from brief mentions about the progression of the game in relation to their own careers before kickoff, their comments were focused entirely on the game, the players and the managers, as they should be.

Comparisons between the men’s game don’t need to be made. There shouldn’t be time for it, with so much going on in the women’s game that needs to be covered. Players should be asked about how they’re preparing for games, their debut goal for their dream club, team cohesion and injuries. Managers and coaches should be asked about their tactics, their team choices, and how they feel about their league form or cup run. Constant questions about the growth and progress of the women’s game is only holding it back from getting the coverage that matches that of the men’s game, where it gets the time and respect its world class players, managers and performances warrant, and will push it on to further progress.

Beccy Smith

You can watch the game on BBC iPlayer here until 24th June.

Keep up to date with all the Women’s FA Cup action on Twitter.

One comment

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