A tournament blossoming with skill and talent, the Women’s Euros is currently being played out in the Netherlands. But does anyone in Britain really care?
With only England’s group games, two quarter-finals, the semis and the final being shown on one of the main five terrestrial channels, television bosses clearly feel that the enthusiasm for the female game is just not there.
Now, compare this with the coverage of the men’s Euros in 2016 and the difference could not be greater: EVERY single group game was shown live on either BBC One or ITV. Women’s football deserves such exposure to grow out of the shadow of the men’s game.
Passion for the women’s game needs to start at home. The host nation, the Netherlands, have embraced the game, but seemingly, only when their own team have been playing. A new record crowd for a women’s football match was set when 21,731 fans attended their opening game in Utrecht and all of the hosts’ group games were sell-outs.
Compare this to the average attendance of games not involving the Dutch, the passion for the game as a whole has just not been the same. With an average gate of just over 6,000 from the 24 group games, women’s football still has a long way to go to whip up the fervour and excitement of a major tournament that the men’s game attracts with ease.
“I’ve been disappointed. Other than the Netherlands attendances, which have been really good, I’d expect a lot more people at the other games.” Rachel Brown-Finnis, former England goalkeeper.
But, throughout Europe, these Euros have witnessed a magnificent improvement from years gone by. The total TV audience of the games so far has risen by 116% – equating to a whopping 72.5 million people, whilst 2.2 million have tuned in for England games in the UK according to Channel 4.
Men’s game more popular
Although the audiences are likely to grow as the tournament reaches the business-end, the figures pale into insignificance when considering that UEFA, the governing body of European football, revealed that over two billion people watched its Euro 2016 national team tournament live on television. The mere 2.2 million that Channel 4 has recorded for England games is also overshadowed by the respective men’s Euros last year. ITV, despite often being criticised for its lacklustre commentaries and pundits, notched up an audience of 14.1 million for England’s 1-1 draw against Russia.
Relegating the women’s game to Channel 4 is also disrespectful. Whilst ITV and BBC fought religiously hard to acquire as many live games of the men’s Euros as possible and with BOTH covering the final, only Channel 4 was willing enough to obtain the rights to showcase the women’s respective competition.
Is quality to blame?
Is it the quality? Certainly, the standard of goalkeeping leaves a lot to be desired. Just cast your eyes to England’s final group game against Portugal on Thursday when Patricia Morais, the Portuguese keeper, gifted Toni Duggan a present for the Lionesses’ opening goal.
“In a unique position like a goalkeeper, there’s still maybe a bigger gap between the senior level goalkeeper for, say, Portugal, and the one for England…there have been some fairly basic errors.” Rachel Brown-Finnis, former England goalkeeper.
Yet there has still been plenty of quality on show. Experienced Chelsea stopper, Hedvig Lindahl, has been in inspired form for Sweden, whilst Jodie Taylor’s fine finish after a superb counterattack against quarter-final opponents, France, served as a stark reminder that at least one of our national football teams can impress and, more importantly, progress on the big stage.
Lionesses should be national heroes
The Lionesses have continued to rejuvenate English football ever since Mark Sampson took over in 2013. The 2015 World Cup saw England achieve the best placing of any European team in the tournament, finishing third. Staggeringly, it also marked the best performance by a senior English team, male or female, since an England men’s team coached by Sir Alf Ramsey had famously won the 1966 World Cup.
The disparity between this remarkable feat and the men’s ‘crash and burn’ in the 2014 World Cup, where the over-hyped Lions miserably failed to progress beyond the group stages, illustrates just how successful women’s football can be in this country.
The Lionesses’ 6-0 thrashing of Scotland in their first group game at this year’s Euros also seems a world away from the England men’s despairing struggle against their quite obviously inferior northern neighbours in a 2-2 draw played out in June, where only a very late Harry Kane goal saved the Lions’ national honour.
What followers of English football want is success; the Lions have often disappointed with tournament after tournament following the same pattern: hope, pessimism, failure. The Lionesses have, contrastingly, repeatedly made the nation proud and are continuing to do so. The semi-finals of the Euros beckon for the women on August 3, against their Dutch hosts.
The men, however, have to look back to 1996 to find their last appearance in a semi-final in a major tournament (and we all know how that ended up, cue Gareth Southgate); the Lionesses have reached two semi-finals in consecutive major competitions.
Greater coverage needed
To obtain the, so far, unreachable heights of the men’s game, the chief television and broadcasting companies need to be willing to give it the necessary exposure. Channel 4 has made a start, but the game needs to be felt to be more important by the British public; showing it on the main two television channels: BBC One and ITV, can make this happen.
“I like the way they have fun playing football and that spreads to the spectators. I am firmly convinced that this approach should be encouraged. Women’s football has earned the right to increased support so that it will continue to develop.” Jurgen Klinsmann
The heroine-like status given to female competitors like Jessica Ennis-Hill does also reveal that women can be adored in this country, more so than men, in some fields. But, can this ever be true of English football?
A game that was banned in 1921 by the Football Association for being “distasteful”, envied by the FA for its large spectatorship, has always been attributed as a ‘male’ sport. The average attendance of the Women’s Super League (top English division) does not produce encouraging reading either.
Worrying gate numbers
The average attendance of the Women’s Super League One was a meagre 1,128, although this was a growth of five per cent on 2015 (1,076). And, although a new league record for home ground attendance was set in September 2016 when 4,096 supporters watched Manchester City secure the title against Chelsea at the Academy Stadium, the crowd was so much smaller than the 41,000 plus that witnessed Chelsea’s home-game to display the title against Watford.
But, if the Lionesses continue their rapid rise to European and world prominence and if national broadcasters and media outlays get more firmly behind the female game, there is the potential for women’s football to develop into more than just a minority sport. After all, success breeds success. The men’s game could learn a thing or two.