Friday 19 July 2019

Sinéad Kissane: 'To be truly equal, women's game must accept valid criticism'

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Wendie Renard. Photo: Iconsport
Wendie Renard. Photo: Iconsport

Sinéad Kissane

Australia captain Sam Kerr used a toned-down version of an infamous Diego Maradona quote after her team came from 2-0 down to beat Brazil 3-2 in their Women's World Cup Group C game on Thursday in Montpellier.

"There were a lot of critics talking about us, but we're back," Kerr gushed. "So suck on that one."

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The goal that won the game for Australia was another own goal in this tournament - this time by Brazil defender Monica. The previous night, France star Wendie Renard scored a horrendous own goal in their game against Norway. There can be bad luck attached to any own goal but this one from Renard looked senseless as she was unchallenged but obviously under pressure when she poked home.

At the time of writing, there were four own goals in this Women's World Cup. With a whiff of paranoia that own goals are not a good look for the women's game, I looked up how many own goals were scored in the group stage of the men's World Cup last year. There were nine. But comparing the number of own goals scored in the group stage of men's and women's World Cups makes absolutely no sense. So why the heightened sensitivity?

This is a landmark tournament as it is the first time every game is being shown live on either RTÉ or TG4.

Hosts France's group game with Norway on Wednesday night was watched by an average audience of 87,400 on RTÉ2, which brings the women's game to a viewership that may not usually watch women's football or just watch it during major events like the Olympics.

Watching women's team sport can bring with it a different dynamic, because it's not just about the game - there is an attached hope that it will inspire girls to take up the sport and increase the popularity generally. Because of this bigger picture there is an added incentive to want the World Cup to be a captivating showcase.

It can be one-dimensional to view this tournament solely in terms of what happens on the pitch. Chile's presence, for example, comes just three years after they didn't even have a FIFA ranking and were given 'inactive' status because of the neglect and disregard shown by its governing body.

But games cannot become subservient to context or the fear of causing offence. The USA got an over-the-top hammering for celebrating every goal in their record-breaking 13-0 win over Thailand, because some viewed it as showing disrespect to their opponents - while also showing-up the disparity between the two teams. As America superstar Alex Morgan - who scored five of those goals - said after: "We really wanted to showcase ourselves." England footballer Eniola Aluko tweeted: "Folks it's Thailand, with the greatest respect. They're giving as best as they can. It's also the job of USA to win, not to make football more comforting to you."

Watching some of the reaction to this tournament would leave you wondering just who some folk believe this Women's World Cup is really for. There has been a skewed measuring stick at times as if this is really the 'Women's World Cup according to men'.

Highlighting misogynistic comments on social media can be a race to the bottom. Validation of how right women's football is doesn't need to come through the prism of how wrong derogatory opinions are. For example, Raymond Verheijen, director of (male) World Academy Football, had this offering: "So far, it would have been better if the World Cup was played behind closed curtains. The level of play is shocking. Like watching grass grow".

Reading opinions like this can lead to a hyper-extension at the opposite end of the spectrum.

It's no wonder there might sometimes be over-the-top lavish praise of women's sport as if to make-up for these kind of derogatory comments. But not having valid criticism is a disservice to the women's game.

For example, Renard's own goal this week deserved to be roundly criticised as it would have been had it happened in the men's game. Sometimes it feels like there can be a fear of criticising women's sport in case it comes across as sexist. It's not. It's healthy. It's important for the development of the game that it is seen to be treated in the same terms that the men's game is.

But this Women's World Cup also needs to be judged on its own merits. Not with what a male player could do in a similar situation but what a female player can do.

This is also an apt time to reclaim the word 'women' when it is used in a sporting sense. There are always calls for 'women' to be dropped from the title of a competition or from a team name because it's not used in the male equivalent - historically there was no need to do so. It is an obvious point of differentiation.

It's right that it is called the Women's World Cup (and the men's should be called the Men's World Cup) and there should be no negative connotation with the use of the word 'women'.

The Women's World Cup brings as many flaws and mistakes that a major tournament generally tends to. But, also, moments of wonder.

And if a part of you wished you were in a squad with the kind of goals that the USA team showed in their record-breaking victory, that's just one of the little wins a tournament like this can also bring.

As Kerr might say, suck on that.

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