Notwithstanding the cruel manner of their exit, the England women’s football team has quite rightly been gaining universal plaudits from the good and the great, both in the media and in the game itself, for their wonderful achievements in the women’s World Cup. Additionally, they have also been highly commended by pundits on their refreshing approach and attitude as to how to play football matches.
However, I contend the team’s approach is only considered ‘refreshing’ by those whose usual diet of football consists of men’s Premier League, men’s Champions League and men’s Internationals. Those that watch football outside of the top echelons of the game will see this ‘refreshing’ approach and attitude at all matches (although the skill levels will vary).
When the ‘refreshing’ comments are being made they are done so in the context of comparing the attitude shown in the women’s game versus the attitude shown in a typical men’s game. However, this ‘typical men’s game’ really only refers to the top level of the men’s game, despite the inference to men’s football per se. This subtle but important distinction is critical in understanding why so many commentators of the beautiful game are in awe of the way the England women’s team play.
If one just watches the top level of the men’s game one will just see matches that are riddled with what’s laughably called professionalism, underhandedness, slyness, deceit, winning at all costs, bad sportsmanship, goading of other players, pressurising of officials, mind games and a whole host of other unsavoury traits and tactics, all played out in the name of ‘the beautiful game’. Of course there is a high quality of football, but the odd exception aside, all these undoubtedly talented footballers seem hell bent on developing the nastier sides of their characters to the same high level as their footballing talents. What that translates to is a game that is often unpalatable to watch because professional players devote as much time, if not more, to ‘getting away with something’ as they do with trying to play great football.
So anyone who only ever watches top level men’s football is going to be surprised when they see that it can be played in a different way. The England women’s team typically haven’t used those underhand tactics to win, nor have any of the nations competing in the Women’s World Cup. Rather, on the whole, they were all trying to play football, trying to play the game in the way it is supposed to be played, trying to beat the opposition by playing better football than them. There were some great examples of skill on display, but the real stand out was how the games were played. They were competitive, including a n expected fair quota of crunching tackles and late fouls, but matches were played in the true spirit of the game. Played in a style akin to how the game is usually played week-in, week-out on football pitches across the country in both men’s and women’s football, everywhere except at the top level of the men’s game.
So for me, watching the women’s World Cup matches was not too dissimilar to watching the non-league football I see every week. Both teams trying to win the match, not trying to avoid defeat. Both teams focusing on playing football (although standards and skill levels may vary) rather than trying to ‘kid’ the referee. Both teams trying to play football as it should be played: football first, everything else last. It would do all those pundits and commentators who only seem to watch top level men’s football the power of good to be exposed to more of this lower level football, and maybe then they wouldn’t be so surprised by the approach taken by teams at the Women’s World Cup.
Unfortunately, given that they hardly ever reference anything below the Premier League that is very unlikely to happen.