Saturday 24 August 2019

Amy Lawrence: 'Women's game has come a long way since cupboard commentary'

Megan Rapinoe of the USA celebrates scoring her second penalty in the Women's World Cup last 16 win over Spain at Stade Auguste-Delaune, Reims, France. Photo: REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo
Megan Rapinoe of the USA celebrates scoring her second penalty in the Women's World Cup last 16 win over Spain at Stade Auguste-Delaune, Reims, France. Photo: REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo
Lucy Bronze. Photo: John Walton/PA Wire

Amy Lawrence

When the first story after the bongs of the BBC Ten O'Clock News comes live from an established anchor reporting from outside a women's football match, you know the game is really on the up. So here we are, with the Women's World Cup final about to be beamed into television sets across the planet, as names such as Megan Rapinoe, Vivianne Miedema, Wendie Renard and Lucy Bronze become more famous by the day, and hundreds of journalists have descended on Lyon to fill the back pages of the national newspapers with build-up and analysis.

It all feels an extraordinarily distant cry from my first encounter with the Women's World Cup final, which for reasons never quite fathomed led to me watching a feed via a minuscule monitor in what felt like a suffocatingly dark cupboard in Paris as co-commentator for the whole of Europe. If this episode of moonlighting is a little known fact, that's because the only way to cope with this insane situation was the safe knowledge that virtually nobody out there, anywhere, would be watching.

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The scene was the 1995 Women's World Cup. This was only the second ever official edition of this tournament since Fifa gave the idea its blessing. The event was supposed to take place in Bulgaria but when that prospect was abandoned Sweden stepped in as host. Just for a bit of perspective consider that 2,286 showed up for Brazil's first match, which dwarfs the 655 in the audience for England's opener, which puts the 250 in attendance for Nigeria's introductory appearance into the shade. Twelve teams participated in all.

Did I know any of this at the time? Not at all, I'm afraid. It was my rookie year as a football writer. Somewhere along the way I had met the benevolent people running Eurosport, who were evidently way ahead of their time when they came up with the radical idea that it might be worth trying to include a female voice on the subject of football.

After a couple of tries reading out scripts to accompany highlights for their European round-up show, it was suggested I could be the colour commentator for the final. When I made it clear I really was no expert on the women's game and had never commentated, it somehow wasn't considered to be a major setback in terms of suitability. Deep end is something of an understatement.

The good news was that nobody in the world knew more facts about football in any shape or form than the main commentator. His name was Angus Loughran, better known in the '90s as "Statto", the character in the show Fantasy Football League, hosted by David Baddiel and Frank Skinner to cherish the best of football and humour in one hugely successful cult programme. Statto always wore pyjamas and a dressing gown and dispensed an encyclopaedic range of nerdish facts on demand.

Fortunately Angus was not wearing pyjamas on the night of the Women's World Cup final but it was still a challenge for us to survive the broadcast.

The cupboard-cum-studio was titchy and boiling. The monitor delivering the live feed was diddy. Best of the lot, we didn't have a pre-match team sheet, so come kick-off did not even have a list of the names and numbers of the players we were not particularly familiar with.

And that was the only channel broadcasting the final to any interested viewers covering an entire continent. Anyway, Norway beat Germany 2-0, in case you were wondering.

"There may soon be a female version of John Motson and Brian Moore on our television screens," noted the Daily Telegraph around this landmark moment of a female voice commenting on football in 1995. While I happily retreated from the microphone to the safety of a laptop, since then plenty of others have normalised the sight and sound of women covering football.

It is part of the broader picture that sees more girls and women playing the game, coaching, officiating, working in clubs and federations. France may not have made the final but they are world leaders in terms of equality at the French Football Federation, with women holding a range of senior roles just because the president, Noël Le Graët, recognises that the best people for the job are the best people for the job full stop.

This tournament has permeated the consciousness in ways women's football never has before. Huge numbers of people are watching, talking and even arguing about it. The semi-final between England and USA registered the highest viewing figures for any programme so far this year in Britain, 11.7 million viewers, and more than 50pc of the national audience.

In Ireland, the game had an average audience of 220,000 with a peak of just over 316,000 and an almost 20pc share.

It is a huge distance from a dark cupboard in Paris with no team sheet. It is milestone territory. At the very least it proves there has to be some debate about how to progress this aspect of the game in England, and beyond.

Observer

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