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19 September 2012

Women’s sport sold down the river only a month after Olympic high

What should be a blockbusting qualifying fixture for England's women footballers will be played at a time and place that guarantee it will be ignored.

By Naomi Westland

The London Olympics catapulted women’s football into the spotlight. More than 70,000 fans watched the GB women’s team beat Brazil 1-0 at Wembley, eclipsing a 92-year old attendance record for a women’s game in the UK.

This huge turnout suggested the British public had finally cottoned on to the fact that women can play football and that it’s worth watching. It was impossible for the media to ignore, even with plenty of competition from other Olympic events. Many hailed the Games as a new dawn for women’s football.

But now, just over a month since the end of the Olympics, that dream appears to be over.

Today, the England women’s football team plays its final qualifying game on the road to the 2013 European championships. If this was the men’s team, it would be a blockbusting fixture at prime time on the hallowed turf at Wembley.

But this is the women’s team we’re talking about. The match takes place at the 11,000-seater Banks stadium, home to League One Walsall. And guess what? Kick off’s at 5pm, when everyone is still at work. Even if you live in Walsall, chances are you won’t be able to make it.

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The game will be shown live on BBC2, which is progress. But according to research by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation women’s sport receives less than five per cent of sports media coverage, despite the fact that other research they’ve done shows 61 per cent of fans want to see more women’s sport in the media.

When I complained during the Olympics about the lack of coverage of women’s sport outside of the Games, and said there was never anything in the press to tell me when England’s women’s matches were on, people dismissed my comments and said that with the internet there’s no excuse for not being able to find out. They also said if no one makes the effort to go to women’s games the media won’t cover them.

So I promised myself that when the Games were over I’d look up the first England women’s match and go to it with my daughter. When I found out where and when it was I had to laugh. If I hadn’t, I’d have cried.

Football matches at impossible times mean fewer people will be able to go. When no one turns up, the male-dominated sports desks of our national newspapers will say: “Look, no one’s interested, why should we write about that?”

Media coverage equals role models, and this is particularly important as when they leave school girls are only half as likely to play sport as boys.

A keen footballer as a child and teenager, I understand the sexism girls and women come up against. I played in my primary school 11-a-side team and the girls’ 5-a-side team. The girls’ team made something of a local name for itself thanks to an inspirational and forward thinking teacher (Mr Matthews, if you’re reading this, thank you) who made it his mission to turn us into footballers. We dominated the local primary school league for years, winning the Trevor Brooking Cup on many occasions. I still have a photo of me shaking hands with the former England player as he presented me, as team captain that year, with the shield.

But all that changed when I started secondary school. None of the local schools had girls’ football teams. For a couple of seasons I played for a team on a local estate but the encouragement and the role models just weren’t there. Add the influence of society’s expectations of what teenage girls should be and do, and eventually I gave it up.

The lack of encouragement I faced as a young teenager in the late 80s should be a thing of the past. It’s not just about the media. Sports bodies need to do much more to promote women’s sport and more investment is essential to convince girls that sport is as much for them as it is for their male peers.

But the media can take a lead and stand up for women’s sport and sports fans. It can push UEFA to take a more ambitious approach to timetabling women’s games so more people can go and watch. It’s not too late to harness the enthusiasm and excitement of the Olympics and Paralympics. I really hope the Walsall fixture is a hangover from a bygone age, something already set up that they couldn’t rearrange, but I’m not convinced. Unless we start to see women’s football at high-profile venues around the country and prime time kick offs soon, an opportunity will have been lost and another generation let down.