Just when you thought a football free summer was assured, a month of international soccer has dominated British television but possibly not the faces and names we’ve got used to. Earlier this month, the English football saga continued as once again the so called ‘special generation’ failed to secure a place in yet another final after a defeat to familiar foes Croatia in the first ever Nation’s League. It seems that the positivity for Gareth Southgate’s men which encapsulated the nation last year has transformed back into the collective pessimism which surrounds each and every international campaign. Instead of celebrating getting to a successive semifinal of a major championship, a wave of negativity surrounded the national side as England’s fifty three year search for a trophy still goes on.
If the male game couldn’t deliver that all important sought after trophy then maybe the women’s team could come up with the goods following a third place victory in the 2015 finals in Canada. With the sport becoming increasingly part of mainstream culture, this tournament could change the image of the sport forever and it’s clear that the BBC has faith in its growing popularity. To have the opening game on prime time BBC1 in place of Eastenders is arguably a considerable breakthrough for the gender inequality in sport and entertainment. Obviously there is still a long way to go before we achieve total equality in sport but hopefully this is a promising start.
Just like last year’s magical summer in Russia, England goes into the championship with more confidence than ever before. Jodie Taylor’s 61 minute tap in was enough to secure the victory over Argentina which got the lionesses off to a great start. Going into Wednesday night’s game against one of the tournament favourites Japan wasn’t going to be an easy feet and this may have been the biggest test for Phil Neville’s ladies. An early goal from Ellen White settled English nerves and we were one step closer to topping the group. The Japanese had more than their fair share of chances to level it up in the second half but goalkeeper Karen Bardsley was on fire and determined to keep a clean sheet. Fortunately for Japan they still qualify in second place in the group and if they can continue to churn out these type of performances there’s no reason why they can’t get extremely far in this competition.
Beyond the actual game itself, there are considerable breakthroughs in sports presentation which has come to prominence thanks to the development of the women’s game. Former Arsenal striker Alex Scott has become one of the most recognised and trusted pundits in football and remains amongst the few to straddle both BBC and Sky. Scott herself has addressed the few that mistook this gender advancement for sexual tokenism yet over the last three seasons she has frequently demonstrated that she is not just there as a political symbol and is able to adjust her analysis from men to women in the blink of an eye. For decades, football has been constantly criticised for being male oriented and slightly outdated in its approach to the opposite sex but now the game has changed and arguably the revolution has begun.
Women in football isn’t anything new. In fact it was a different kind of sea change which brought about such a revolutionary idea in the first place. When ITV controversially secured the broadcasting rights to the Premier League in 2001, they too poached the unmistakable face of the BBC’s Match Of The Day Des Lynam as the main anchor of the new look football highlights show. Yet with a limited previous coverage, ITV were promptly forced to assemble a presenting team around him. Former gymnast and daughter of Tottenham Hotspur legend Terry Yorath, Gabby Logan had appeared on Metro Radio before joining Sky Sports in 1996 until ITV came calling just two years later. Now with rights to the Premier League assured, ITV were ready to push the boundaries of sports presentation and introduce a female presenter to The Premiership. Unfortunately just three years later the BBC won back the broadcasting rights to the Premier League which resulted in the end of The Premiership. Yet Gabby’s relationship with football continued by anchoring ITV’s coverage of the Champions League before switching to the BBC in 2007.
This turning point in broadcasting posed many questions about women’s roles in football presentation as Britain strove for a more inclusive television landscape. On Saturday 21st April 2007 journalist and broadcaster Jaqui Oatley made history by becoming the first female commentator to preside over a fixture on Match Of The Day when she voiced the potentially crucial relegation battle between Fulham and Blackburn Rovers at Craven Cottage. Interviewed by the Daily Telegraph Oatley remarked: “I don’t think of it as breaking down barriers for women in sport. I do it for the same reason any bloke does: I love football”. Both Oatley and the BBC were determined to play the moment down, yet unfortunately the media got hold of the news and sent journalists and photographers to the game. Therefore what started as a subtle breakthrough turned into a national political revolution.
While the debates surrounding the presentation of the men’s game was still rampant, women’s football was in full momentum under the capable hands of the manager of the national side Hope Powell who was in charge for an unparalleled fifteen years. In that time England qualified for three World Cups and recorded their biggest win (away against Hungary, 13–0) in the process, ending a 12-year hiatus from the competition. At 31 Powell became the youngest ever coach of any English national football team, as well as the first woman and the first non-white person to hold the office. Powell’s achievements were acknowledged by royalty when she was awarded a CBE in the 2010 birthday honours which helped to highlight the progression of the sport.
Just three years later Powell resigned as head coach of England and was replaced by former Cardiff Corinthians striker Mark Sampson who guided the lionesses to third place in the 2015 World Cup in Canada. Yet this wasn’t enough to cement his job and in September 2017 Sampson was sacked and fresh from a short stint at Valencia, Phil Neville was hired to steady the ship. With increasing national interest and growing media coverage, the role of the women’s England football manager suddenly took on extra pressure and responsibility. Arguably the 2019 World Cup is Phil Neville’s biggest test of his glittering career which has seen him ascent to the very top of club football. Now on the other side of the dugout, will he be able to deliver the same results?
So football’s ongoing bumpy relationship with women continues as equality in sport becomes a top priority on the political agenda and the representation of women still has the power to stir passion in the majority of the world’s population. Yet through the popularity of this World Cup and England’s ability to get behind another great national side is surely only a very positive thing for the sport. Through both the development of female sports presenters combined with the newfound passion for the women’s game, it seems that football has come a long way from the male dominated arena of the past and let’s hope that the game remains as beautiful as ever, united instead of divided.