By Mark Docherty
If somebody had told me earlier this year that I would be spending significant parts of my summer watching women’s football, I would likely have asked if they were feeling unwell. Yet while watching England heroically fall to defeat in last night’s World Cup semi-final against the reigning champions, I realised how invested I have become.
The feeling of emptiness on seeing Steph Houghton and her teammates inconsolable at the final whistle did not quite match that of twelve months ago, when the men’s side was dumped out by Croatia in their own World Cup semi-final, but it was painful nonetheless.
I am by no means an expert on the women’s game, but all the pundits seemed to be saying exactly what I was thinking after the match: the Lionesses have done themselves proud, but lacked the ruthless determination necessary to be crowned world champions.
Hope Solo, an American pundit, said on the BBC that ‘football was the winner’, while the USA were described as ‘serial winners’. This got me thinking: how much of a hindrance is this country’s attitude to women’s football on the national team?
Whenever England approach a tournament, there is talk of inspiring a generation of girls and raising the profile of women’s football and, while these are admirable aspirations, they surely make it that much more difficult for the players to win silverware.
This is a key point of difference from the Lionesses’ American counterparts, as the sport’s popularity in the States means the team can concentrate wholly on winning. England’s manager, Phil Neville, has said his possession-based style of football is non-negotiable, and would surely never have sanctioned his side keeping the ball by the corner flag to run down the clock the way his opponents did, had they been ahead.
The Lionesses’ passing was wayward throughout the semi-final, yet Neville refused to compromise his style of play even as they repeatedly played themselves into trouble. Even as the match crept into added time, still England did not revert to the route-one long ball game which is so commonplace in men’s football.
Now, I do not pretend to be knowledgeable of the finer workings of the women’s national team, but I am convinced that a need to shape external perceptions of women’s football influenced Neville’s reluctance to compromise his footballing principles. England’s commitment to women’s football is getting in the way of their ambitions as winners.
As a nation, we can all do something to ensure that this is no longer the case going forward. Us part time women’s football fans must stop viewing every match we watch as a reflection on the sport as a whole. We do not judge every defensive performance in the Premier League as an indictment on men’s football, so nor should we in the women’s game.
The Lionesses must feel as though they are free to employ whatever methods are necessary to win. They cannot be bound by any philosophies, agendas or rules other than winning at all costs. It is not enough for football to be the winner. Only then will England undergo the transition from being plucky underdogs to a force to be reckoned with.