When I heard that the BBC would be covering the Women’s Euro 2013 championship, I said hooray. And this despite my having watched no women’s football in my life.
At this moment, if you showed me a picture of Rachel Yankey (126 caps for England) or Kelly Smith (46 goals), I suppose I would guess from their tell-tale shorts and football boots that they were somehow involved in sport, but that would be it. Many of us will be in the same boat, I suspect.
Well, be warned. By the end of this tournament, on 28 July, many of us will have changed our tune. We will have watched at least one (women’s) penalty shoot-out with our fingers laced in front of our eyes; we will have rejoiced at fabulous goals (scored by women) and shouted, “Offside! That was definitely offside!” (at women from an opposing team).
At the time of writing, relatively few people are aware that in the group stage of Euro 2013, England plays Spain, then Russia, then France. I guarantee this general ignorance will not last for long.
Over the past couple of decades, people have often asked, in an airy sort of way, why women’s football doesn’t have more support, especially when England are so successful at it [they lie seventh in the Fifa rankings; the men are 15th]. Attempting to explain this conundrum myself a couple of years ago, I came up with a cunning theory. My theory was that the pleasure in spectating sport is mainly in watching people suffer – and it’s plain that men in sport suffer more convincingly than women, partly because they work harder at it, and partly because it comes naturally.
Think of all those long, sulky faces on male footballers. Think of all that pushing and shoving and flouncing off. Thus, the key to the success of men’s football is that the players seem to hate and despise the whole business, especially if they are French or Italian.
Meanwhile, women footballers (I said) make the fatal mistake of seeming actually to enjoy playing football. As a general principle (I said), no one wants to watch other people having a good time. Look at EastEnders, and so on.
I offer this merely as a theory; I don’t expect it to find favour. And of course I don’t think it’s the real reason women’s football doesn’t have the following men’s. The main reason is simply lack of coverage. In order to get involved in any sport, spectators need to be put in the picture about personalities; we need to appreciate how much each performance matters.
Well, now women’s football finally gets its chance of proper coverage, and I am sure it will pay off – because (as it happens) I am living proof that a single tournament is quite sufficient to turn an open-minded ignoramus into a true fan.
In 1996, you see, when the men’s Euros were in England, I was asked by The Times if I knew anything about football and I said no. Bizarrely content with this answer, they sent me to the opening match, and I wrote a piece saying it was, quite honestly, hard to get involved when you couldn’t identify individual players except from behind (and you needed binoculars to do so).
Within a fortnight, however, everything had changed. Far from needing to read the players’ names on their backs, I was an expert on the scoring partnership of Shearer and Sheringham, I had opinions on the value of Gascoigne in midfield, and I thought it was pointless for Steve McManaman to race with the ball quite so fast since no one else in the England team could ever seem to keep up with him.
This learning curve was quite steep, believe me. When I had met the chaps from Sport, they had tested my ignorance and been genuinely astonished by its depth, especially when I’d asked whether the European championships were held annually. Had I heard of Alan Shearer? they asked. No, I said. Sheringham?
Yes, yes: a coastal town in Norfolk. One of the chaps talked enthusiastically about the former Dutch international “Rude Hoolitt” [Ruud Gullit]. “The G is silent,” he said, helpfully. I remember thinking that I’d have to look this up afterwards, the G being so completely silent that I had no idea at all where it went.
On the day of the first match, I said to a friend, “Did you know England didn’t have to qualify for this because we’re the hosts?” I will never forget his look of pity as he said, “You really don’t know anything about football, do you?”
What I mainly learnt in the course of three momentous weeks, of course, was the sheer misery of being a football fan. By the end of Euro 96, I didn’t care any more about being able to identify the England players; I was too busy berating them. This was, of course, the final proof that I was hooked.
“Who did you pass that to?” I yelled sarcastically at Gazza. “The Invisible Man?”
Meanwhile, the structure of the tournament – with the group stage giving way to the knock-out – had worked its infallible magic; looking at those blank points tables for the Women’s Euros, I’m already desperate to start filling them in. Because here we go again.
In the group stage, we will start by being slightly blasé about those points tables; then we will find ourselves memorising them (to save consulting them all the time); and then, before we know it, we’ll be saying, “If we don’t win this by more than two goals while Russia loses to Spain simultaneously, we could be out!”
From there, it’s the terrible knock-out stage. And by the time you’ve endured the quarter- finals, semi-finals and final, you are utterly lost, and the players – well, whether you like it or not, those formerly unknown heroic players (who have probably, in the end, let you down quite badly) are in your heart for ever.
England’s group games:
England v Spain: Friday 12th July, 7pm (k/o 7:30pm), BBC3
England v Russia: Monday 15th, 4:30pm (k/o 5pm), BBC2; 4:45pm Eurosport; 5pm Radio 5 Live
France v England: Thursday 18th, 7pm (k.o 7:30pm) BBC3; 7:15pm Eurosport; 7:30pm 5 Live