Sport - Annalisa Barbieri hails the "other" football
I'm now a big fan of women's football, cringey moments and all
''England v Sweden??" was the excited response I got when I told people I was covering the match last Saturday. "When? Where?" they asked, panicking at the thought that such an important fixture could have slipped past them. "Saturday, Ewood Park," I offered. "Oh, the women's match," they sighed, relieved: Saturday night could be spent doing other things, then. Women's football, I realised, isn't taken very seriously at all. When I spoke to a couple of senior sports commentator friends of mine, they both said that actually, women's football could be very exciting. Could it? Oh yes, the World Cup a few years ago was really exciting. "Isn't that when one of the players took her top off?" I asked.
Apparently this had nothing to do with it; the match had been genuinely exciting, with China and the US going to penalty shoot-outs in 1999, and the winning goal coming from the American Brandi Chastain, who took her top off in the excitement. One of my friends actually got quite shirty with me for even suggesting the connection. As if!
The England v Sweden match drew just under 26,000 spectators, the biggest turnout so far in the tournament. The funny thing was the crowd sound: we're so used to the bass tones of a typical football crowd, this was all rather higher-pitched. And why do footballers, male or female, never seem to know the words to their national anthem?
The criticism often levelled at women's football is that it looks amateur compared to the men's game: it was a word I heard over and over again in descriptions of the sport. By the time I'd sat down to watch the game I was already fiercely protective of it. Unfortunately, within the first three minutes there was a schoolgirl kerfuffle around the net that resulted in a forehead-slappingly stupid goal for Sweden: Therese Sjogran had taken a corner, the ball bounced off Katie Chapman, one of our midfielders, and Anna Sjostrom flicked it over the line. It wasn't dramatic or beautiful, just a flurry of disorganisation that gave Sweden a lead England would never regain.
We did try - just seven minutes later Sweden's goalkeeper, Hedvig Lindahl, had to use her big, glovey hands to save a shot from left-winger Rachel Yankey. The problem was that too many times, the ball was kicked . . . to no one. There was none of that precision there is in men's football, which is so technically perfect in comparison. This did make for a far more human game; but there were times when it was a bit cringey, even though I am now women's football's biggest fan and won't hear a word said against it.
The really exciting player was striker Eniola Aluko, who usually plays for Charlton Athletic. She is just 18 and had sat her history A-level three days earlier. Although "Eni" is often left off the "ones to watch" lists, such as they are (women's football is scantily covered in the national press), she had enormous presence - my heart beat faster whenever she had the ball. It didn't matter that, in the 34th minute, she had the pitch all to herself but failed to score an equaliser; what mattered was that she was there and it felt as if anything could happen while she was. She ran faster than anyone else, too.
Women's football is now the fastest-growing sport in the country, with the number of teams rising tenfold in ten years, to 4,500. The reason it's still regarded as fairly amateur is that it had no formal support or training structure for years. In 1921 the FA in effect banned women's football (it was seen as a threat to the men's game), asking all its clubs to refuse women access to pitches, which resulted in their exclusion from any sort of league structure and relegated them to the most basic of sports grounds, with no changing facilities. Let alone hot tubs. It was
a mean act, and women's football suffered greatly as a result. The
ban was - incredibly - lifted only in July 1971, when someone somewhere must have reminded the FA to get over itself.
Sweden's win meant England were out of the European championships. The final is on Sunday at 3.15pm at Ewood Park and will be between two of these teams: Germany, Finland, Norway and Sweden. The "other World Cup" is in 2007.