Tuesday 15 October 2019

Oliver Brown: 'Patronising praise must end for women's sport to be equal'

Australia’s Steph Catley and Caitlin Foord challenge for the ball during their team’s victory against Brazil. Photo: Eric Gaillard/Reuters
Australia’s Steph Catley and Caitlin Foord challenge for the ball during their team’s victory against Brazil. Photo: Eric Gaillard/Reuters

Oliver Brown

Clearly, a paradigm shift is afoot across France. This week, the hosts of the World Cup savoured a victory over Norway that drew a 34,000 sell-out in Nice, while media interest in Germany's vanquishing of Spain in Valenciennes was so intense that the mixed zone overflowed even while the managers' press conferences took place.

Couple such successes with the fact that England's opening group game against Scotland drew a BBC television audience of 6.1 million, and it is staggering to see the progress that has been made even since 2017, when a British newspaper still had no compunction about running the headline: "Please stop telling us that women's sport is as good as men's - it isn't!"

During an evening at Lord's recently, there was no greater applause than when rowing legend Katherine Grainger called for an end to separating sport into male and female silos, and to treat it instead as "just sport".

Corollary

The power of that statement is beyond dispute, but it does come with an obvious corollary: namely, that at this watershed moment for women's football, the World Cup matches should be subject to the same criticism, the same scrutiny that is applied in the men's game.

Toni Duggan, England's leading striker, doubts whether this point has yet been reached. In a recent interview, she reflected: "We've actually played badly and people are saying, 'Ah, we're so proud.' Is it just because we're the women's team? If that was the men, you wouldn't be saying that."

Australia's players celebrate after the match. Photo: Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters
Australia's players celebrate after the match. Photo: Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters

She is right, naturally. Take the United States's 13-0 shellacking of Thailand, which raised questions about the winners' etiquette at celebrating so lopsided a scoreline, and about how exactly their overwhelmed opponents had managed to qualify at all. If such a result befell the Thais' male counterparts, it would spark national embarrassment.

But in the women's case, some of the coverage redefined the extremes of glass-half-full thinking. After the US players had shredded them on the pitch, the reporters killed them with kindness. One American website described Kanjana Sungngoen, who had just contributed to conceding 13 goals, as "posing a threat on the right with her pace".

Duggan has grown accustomed, in her two seasons at Barcelona, to less charitable treatment. Footage of the goal she scored against Atletico Madrid in March, in front of almost 61,000 at the Wanda Metropolitano, shows an opposition fan giving her "the finger".

While not excusing the behaviour, she makes it clear that she would rather compete in an environment where passions run high than one where she is slathered in praise for the sake of it.

Australia's Elise Kellond-Knight and Emily Van Egmond in action with Brazil's Andressa. Photo: Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters
Australia's Elise Kellond-Knight and Emily Van Egmond in action with Brazil's Andressa. Photo: Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters

In these islands, there have been occasions in women's sport when strong support has been expected rather than earned. One instance springs to mind from the 2011 Solheim Cup golf at Killeen Castle in Co Meath. In the space of a single day, Melissa Reid and her partner contrived to lose two matches, despite having led both by one hole with two to play. When I suggested to Alison Nicholas, the European captain, that these collapses cast doubt over Reid's matchplay temperament, she shot me a look that could have curdled milk. "Don't be too hard on her," she snapped. "She gave it 100 per cent."

Well, yes, one took maximum effort as a given. This was, after all, international sport. But Nicholas evidently assumed that all the reactions to her team would be tub-thumpingly partisan, at one stage complaining of the crowd: "I wish they would scream a bit more."

The tendency could be even more pronounced in women's football. I once asked a former England manager if a premature World Cup exit, sealed by a tepid defeat, counted as a missed opportunity. At this point, a note was surreptitiously passed to the press officer. As he later told me, it simply read: "W*****."

Mercifully, these myopic attitudes are on the wane. While the prickly Hope Powell stoked an atmosphere where you were either with her players or against them, Phil Neville tends to view the situation more subtly. When he was first appointed to the England role, his sister Tracey, long-time England netball coach, told him: "Be brutal."

Brazil's Marta, right, battles for the ball with Australia's Emily Gielnik. Photo: Claude Paris/AP Photo
Brazil's Marta, right, battles for the ball with Australia's Emily Gielnik. Photo: Claude Paris/AP Photo

The implication was that he should not mollycoddle his team, or tell them they had played well when they had played badly. Instead, he needed to start dealing with them like elite athletes.

There can still, however, be a marked reluctance to criticise. It is difficult to imagine the England men's side losing a World Cup warm-up game to New Zealand, and having such a gentle ride as the women received this month, with Neville falling back on that old crutch: "The girls gave everything."

To offer criticism of a team's technical ability is not negative and, if expressed in reasoned, objective terms, assuredly not sexist. "When we lose we're slated," Duggan says of her experiences in Spain. "That's the level the game is at." In England, as she suggests, rose-tinted views are more commonplace. Ultimately, however, this serves less to protect players than to patronise them. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Australia 3 Brazil 2

Australia came from two goals down to defeat Brazil as an own goal from Monica capped a superb fightback and overshadowed a milestone goal for Marta.

Marta, 33, became the first player to score at five different World Cups as she put Brazil ahead from the penalty spot with a record-extending 16th World Cup goal before Cristiane doubled the lead.

Australia's Caitlin Foord reduced the arrears on the stroke of half-time before Chloe Logarzo equalised and Monica then headed past her own 'keeper, with the goal given after a VAR review, to hand Australia all three points.

Brazil and Australia both have three points in Group C as do Italy, who take on Jamaica today after beating the Matildas in their opening match.

Marta had already scored at the 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015 World Cups.

"It would feel much better with a win," she said. "It's one more detail written in the history of women's football. I am honoured, but there's more to do at this tournament."

Telegraph.co.uk

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