Next year’s women’s World Cup in Canada will definitely feel a bit artificial. Only the turf though. The football itself will be embraced like never before. You sense the next level is about to be reached for the women’s game – and the evidence was on the real turf of one of the World’s great football stadiums, Wembley.
England v Germany. A 45,000 crowd. Live on terrestrial TV. A wave of media coverage. The big breakthrough in the part of the world where the men’s game first made its mark over 150 years ago.
The event turned out to be disappointing for the thousands of English fans. A transport strike halted a surge of ticket sales that genuinely could have ended up at 70 or 80,000. Then came the appalling weather, near-apocalyptic rain throughout match day that didn’t help the pitch or the atmosphere. In fact it meant 10,000 ticket holders didn’t show (though let’s ensure we don’t patronise the women’s game – if it was an England v Germany men’s game they would still have showed. That’s the final hurdle the game has to cross.)
England’s women disappointed against a team they simply can’t beat. Outclassed and 3-0 down at half-time they never recovered, never came close to hitting back, and that’s how it finished. Enthusiasm literally doused.
But that enthusiasm will be back next summer, I’m sure of it. To get bogged down with England’s capitulation during 45 minutes on the NFL-affected pitch is to not see the bigger picture around the progress of the women’s game in England.
And what was happening off the pitch here was arguably more important – the announcement that UK television, via the BBC, will show every single game live on one platform or other, for the first time. 1.1 million watched England v Germany. A not insignificant mark passed.
Canada 2015 has what it takes for audiences in the UK and, obviously, elsewhere. 24 teams and a chance to fill the insatiable appetite for year-round football in those markets which have shut down in for a month in June and early July. Think about 2014 without the Brazil World Cup and the gloom that would have enveloped millions of football junkies, desperate for their fix of the game.
They will embrace the bigger, better women’s World Cup. The time difference won’t be ideal everywhere but as this column has said before and will say again, the world doesn’t revolve around Europe.
How much the Canadian public, and indeed travelling fans, are really up for this one will become clearer in the coming months. And I wonder if we’ll see the level of American support I witnessed in Brazil. It’s still participation of girls that marks out a different dynamic in the soccer scene in America. Which reminds me the American at the epicentre of FIFA-gate, American lawyer Michael Garcia, only had one handle on football before taking the fateful investigation…and that was picking up his daughter from practise back in the States!
But whether it’s the BBC in England, or Fox Sports in the States (they are showing the draw live for the first time in 16 years on December 6). It remains my view that women’s football needs to sell itself, not follow some of the ingrained mistakes of the established male coverage.
It grates to see misguided gravitas-seeking presentation, teetering on the brink of po-faced, with pundits going through the motions. This was sadly the case with the European Championship coverage in 2013. Ex-players the public would be unlikely to recognise (not a crime) using tired cliches in the style they’d seen on Match of the Day (which is).
‘The girl done triffic there.’
I still think innovation to go with information is the key on and off air for women’s football coverage.
Through clever advertising, coverage that looks and feels lively, sparky. Make it leftfield where necessary. Some of the best sports coverage I’ve ever seen in the UK was the Paralympics of 2013. What’s that got to do with women’s football I hear you ask? It’s about raising the level of recognition of participants and the need to promote personalities and stories along with undoubted sporting talent.
Millions in England don’t know who Karen Carney is, despite her winning a 100th cap v Germany and with all the quality on the ball and professionalism that landmark would suggest. The safe approach is to say with ‘she’s got nothing to do with Wayne Rooney, they are completely different style players’. But look at the narrative there to exploit. Get Wayne involved for goodness sake in a comparison piece. Sell it, try and get people interested who aren’t knowledgeable on the women’s game.
And broadcasters can only do so much. I want to see sticker albums – are Panini having this? And then a knock-on effect on league football. The Women’s Super league in England, for instance, hasn’t taken off the way we hoped. The big crowds still aren’t there, but it can and I hope it will.
While Australia have qualified even in medal winning nations the battle is still being fought – broadcasters ABC have axed their W-League coverage from 2015/16 citing the big overall budget cuts at the network. With FIFA’s Moya Dodd among those pushing the game in Australia they can recover, but it’s not going to be easy.
But for 24 nations there is a chance to use this spotlight on the controversial artificial pitches.
There will be plenty more dispute about the playing surface before the big kick-off but this World Cup in Canada will prove women’s football is now the real deal for fans and viewers.
While the NFL players made more of a mark on that Wembley pitch, the mark the women’s game is about to make in 2015 will be considerable, and unprecedented.
Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport