Lee Wellings: Women’s football gets its day

Question; which international defender with over 100 caps had to start their career washing the underwear of Denis Bergkamp and his Arsenal team mates?

Surprise surprise it wasn’t a man. England’s Casey Stoney was a senior player for Arsenal when she had to do laundry to supplement her income.

That was in 1999 so how far have women in football come since then? Well let’s say there’s still work to do on the field – not in the laundry. But plenty has to be done off the pitch by the men who dominate the game.

I raise this after the intense 24 hours of International Women’s Day, where sport played an important part. Am I the only one who found the relationship between football and International Women’s Day (March 8) uncomfortable? Male executives were tripping over themselves to be seen to be doing something, when I’d prefer their actions to take place away from the spotlight and away from such a manufactured occasion.

For instance TV sport channels proudly displaying with all female presentation. How about making sure the women who stepped up are entrusted with the main anchor role with a man as a ‘sidekick/number two’. Not just one day per year. Now that would be proper progress. I’m not talking about a wholesale lack of opportunity for female presenters, I’m talking about presentation DUOS. Then I wouldn’t remain so sceptical of the misogyny that has existed in some areas of television sport for years.

Now what about FIFA? How far have the game’s rulers come from Sepp Blatter’s infamous comment about tighter shorts?

Their revelation on March 8 was undoubtedly significant. Four women announced as the contenders for a slot on the Executive Committee, to be decided at Congress in Mauritius.

Sonia Bien-Aime of the Turks & Caicos Islands, of rising importance to Concacaf,  Australia’s Moya Dodd, New Zealander Paula Kearns and of course Lydia Nsekera of Burundi, the first women to be brought on to FIFA’s Executive Committee (on an interim one-year basis).

Might all FOUR merit a place on the Executive Committee? Because if they are not all at that level, then the horrible phrase ‘token gesture’ hangs over this announcement. We need to hear more from all four on what they are bringing to the table. But I would predict, and this may be some form of ‘reverse sexism’, they will be bringing more integrity that some of the men in the empty seats who have shamed the organisation.

Careful consideration of FIFA’s position is required before any criticism is aimed at them. In a way they are damned if they do, damned if they don’t try to fast-track some female representation. And most of us would prefer they do.

I met UEFA’s Karen Espelund, the first woman on their Executive Committee for the first time last year. I’d read and heard a lot about her. What an impressive character she is. And what a relief to spend most of the interview giving her a hard time about whether UEFA can make FFP work rather than focusing on her gender. She has clarity and vision. A future President?

But the ideal is when the least relevant characteristic of a female executive is the fact she’s female. A meritocracy, the proverbial ‘level playing field’.

I can say hand on heart that while I’ve been in managerial positions in sport I’ve been able to employ and utilise on merit. Of course in the media you have to consider how someone, male or female, presents themself, gravitas, experience etc. But far too many talented young female broadcasters are not getting the opportunities they deserve.

The fuss in the UK when Jacqui Oatley became the first female TV commentator was disconcerting and unnecessary. Having worked with her at the BBC I know she is philosophical and wise enough to appreciate that commentators and their voices – just like presenters and indeed footballers – is a subjective business. You have to take the rough with the smooth. But some of the rough (criticism) said far more about the men lashing out than her undoubted commentary skills. Thankfully she is flourishing, partly through her coverage of the women’s game

Of all the football-related television coverage on International Women’s Day perhaps the most uncomfortable interview came with West Ham United FC owner David Gold. He couldn’t quite find the words when explaining why a woman couldn’t manage in a male football environment, mentioning the ability to swear as motivation to players at one point! In fairness to him and the club he can employ who he likes and was big enough to talk about the subject on camera. He does employ Karren Brady as vice-chairman but it would be hard not to employ someone of her ability. One of the great things about Karren Brady is that with each passing year it has become less relevant that she’s a female trailblazer, and more apparent that she’s the high class operator she’s always been.

Of course it would be harder for a woman to become a manager in men’s football at a high level, with many of the obstacles Brady faced when she became managing director of Birmingham City two decades ago. Winning over players, fans and media for starters. But don’t rule it out while expecting the first club to do to be courting the publicity.

The subject of women in the ‘men’s game’ occasionally moves directly into the spotlight. Assistant referee Wendy Toms was the victim of sexist remarks that ultimately led to the downfall of the biggest sports presenting duo in UK television – Richard Keys and Andy Gray – but the positive side of that is how quickly she proved her capabilities in the job. Disgraceful that she had to do that, but a rare example of an official getting any praise whatsoever.

Twenty years ago I was sent to Liverpool to make a piece on one of their players who was about to play in a Cup final. While I can’t remember my exact script I know I didn’t have the guts to mention the obvious about my time filming with her. She wasn’t very good, simple as that. Could not control a ball.

Thankfully standards have improved significantly and the elite of women’s football are providing an appetising spectacle.

I’ve loved watching Japan play, with the inspiring Homare Sawa at the centre of it. I recently asked her (yes okay it was through a translator) if she’d consider coming out of international retirement and playing in the 2020 Olympics, which may be in Japan, well into her forties. Her answer was a clear no but she did play her part in the London Olympics and the final between Japan and USA was full of quality. The mass participation of young girls in soccer in the US makes their future as a power in the sport assured.

When the quality isn’t good, let’s not pretend it is. Sports events ultimately have to be judged on the standard. Many games I’ve watched here do not make me want to step up my consumption of women’s football. Yet. There’s still a lot of hard work to do. But it’s getting there. For domestic standards in other countries I’m interested in hearing what you think.

Internationally the last World Cup had great games, and a thrilling finale. And that action in the London Olympics increased my appetite for the women’s game – along with tens of thousands in stadiums and millions of others watching on television worldwide. FIFA claim 29 million women and girls play football worldwide. And the standards are likely to rise with each new generation.

The new Casey Stoners should be able to make a full living from professional football without having to start out on laundry duty.