The UEFA Women’s European Championships 2017 highlights some of the differences between women and men’s football in a number of fields, ranging from finances and viewership to pure footballing techniques.
The hosts, the Netherlands, won the UEFA Women’s European Championships 2017, beating Denmark 4-2 in the final in front of a full house at Enschede. A first half that was played at breakneck speed finished 2-2. Denmark’s Nadia Nadim opened the scoring with an early penalty but Vivianne Miedema finished a flowing Dutch move down the right minutes later to equalise. Lieke Martens scored a wonderful individual goal to put the Dutch ahead – she cut in from the left, exchanged passes with the right back, turned her defender and placed a low left-footed shot in the bottom corner. However, Pernille Harder broke the Dutch offside trap and equalised for the Danes with a neat finish. The second half was all Holland, though. The Danes were visibly tiring trying to track the fleet-footed Dutch attack and the Dutch dominance duly showed as Sherida Spitse scored from an intelligent free kick routine. Vivianne Miedema scored her second of the game and fourth of the tournament in the 89th minute to seal the victory for the hosts.
These Euros came following the saturation and fatigue a fan would feel after having followed what are becoming more and more exhausting seasons of men’s football. Hundreds of league games (if you only watch one league), various cups and shields, endless clickbaity speculation about this and that, all topped off by a Confederations Cup that barely managed to muster interest. Following this, the football fan’s obvious options would have been to follow the inanity of the big clubs’ pre-season or the unprecedented obscenities of the transfer window, and in this context the women’s Euros offered a chance to watch something meaningful. Coming into it, it was difficult for viewers as new as us to know what to expect.
There is no denying that women’s football is different from men’s football. For starters, there can be no comparison in terms of the finances or the viewership. The total investment in women’s football by all the member associations of UEFA barely breached the 100 million euros mark. PSG paid Barcelona 225 million euros for a few years of Neymar’s services. The Women’s Euros 2017 were held in the Netherlands – Breda, Enschede, Utrecht, Rotterdam, Deventer, Tilburg and Doetinchem were the host cities. Amsterdam and Eindhoven – two Dutch cities that boast some of the strongest footballing traditions in Europe – are conspicuous by their absence from the list. The home team played all their matches at sold out stadiums. While other games did not necessarily sell out, there were strong attendance figures throughout the tournament – evidenced by the Viking thunder-clap at Iceland games. There was decent television coverage of the entire tournament in Europe and record TV viewership for women’s football was recorded in England for their team’s knockout games. But despite being possibly the most popular tournament of its kind ever, it went largely unremarked upon in India, where the women’s cricket team were breaking new ground for cricket at the same time.
Besides the differences due to structural inequalities in societies and football associations, women’s football is distinct from mens’ football in purely footballing terms as well. Games tend to be a little slower with fewer tackles. One of the things that is most attractive about women’s football is the emphasis on technical and positional play over the physical ability to compensate for positional and technical errors. This is a departure from the tactical saturation in the men’s game which sees a forceful approach to results that permeates the game at all levels. An obvious demonstration of this fact in this tournament was the semi-final between England and the Netherlands. England had used their superior physicality to upset France in the quarter-final but had no answers when faced with the intricate play and technique of the Dutch front five who ran rampant through the game.
However, care must be taken to not project the nostalgia for the days before big-money men’s football onto the women’s game. In aestheticising the slower, less physical game, there is the obvious pitfall of turning the institutional difficulties (amateurishness, for lack of a better word) of women’s football into a source of virtue. It’s so easy to say that women players actually play for the badge or their country, since they do not enjoy the same salaries as the men, even when they may draw more revenue. But predicating the value of women’s football on this lack of agency would be a terrible thing to do and would only serve to entrench the systemic inequalities that already plague the game.
At this point in football’s history, re-focusing our attention on to the women’s game happens to help serve the dual purpose of mainstreaming football as an activity for someone other than able-bodied men and watching football uncomplicated by the blinding hyper-professionalism of the top-flight men’s game. In the long term, the responsible fan would need to build more active, less consumptive relationships with football. The game in its realest, most inclusive form is the informal kickabout and as with any sport, participation must remain at the centre of how we understand it.
But for the moment, even watching and covering women’s football would have a serious impact, simply because of how silent we are about it, while so much else in football is so loud.
Within this consumptive mode of engagement, it matters greatly whether top level women’s football is good entertainment. On the evidence of this tournament, it emphatically is. Some tactical setups – such as those of the Austrians – were familiar from the men’s game: set up a compact defence and look to nick a goal on the counter. The Spaniards played a sterile possession based game largely similar to the Spanish men’s sides 2008 to 2012. The English team showed maturity in being able to play various tactical approaches till they were outfoxed by the Dutch. The Dutch were the most fluid team at this tournament. They committed to attractive, attacking football and played a high back line. Though they never sent their full backs on the overlap, they pushed their front six high up the pitch and all of them had excellent tournaments. Danielle van de Donk, Jackie Groenen, and Lieke Martens (who won player of the tournament) were excellent and would be shoe-ins for the team of the tournament.
These Euros had it all – from the thrilling 4-2 final to tepid 0-0 draws in the quarters that had to be decided on penalties. And while every tournament has some of those inevitable scoreless draws, the majority of the games boasted entertaining end to end football. It also had upsets. The heavyweights of women’s football were sent crashing out early as relative unknowns like Denmark and tournament newcomers Austria had surprisingly successful runs. Denmark’s 2-1 victory over Germany was a historic upset – Germany had been European champions for 22 years before 2017. Norway, twice European champions in the past, went out after the group stages after shock losses to Belgium and Denmark. Football fans love an underdog story and this tournament was chock-full of them. In fact, the hosts and eventual champions, the Netherlands, were underdogs themselves at the start of the tournament given they only played their first World Cup in 2015 and do not have a fully professional women’s league.
Some of the players have remarkable stories – quite a few of which are unique to the women’s game. Nadia Nadim, who scored the opening goal for Denmark in the final, fled to Denmark from Afghanistan after her father was executed by the Taliban. Sherida Spitse played in a boys’ team until turning professional. The rabid homophobia that is often characteristic of the men’s game is largely missing in the women’s game – cases of fan abuse or instructions from managers to hide one’s sexuality seem more an exception than the norm with several openly homosexual players playing and coaching professionally. There are also accounts of several teams having to resort to strike actions in order to force their federations into giving them minimum wage contracts and access to basic facilities.
Different people watch football for different reasons. Several fans have local and/or familial affiliations. Others admire the beauty of the game. Still others follow it as a social exercise. In the age of Messi and Ronaldo, many fans follow specific players instead of teams or the game in general. But without exception fans follow football to be entertained. Women’s football is entertaining and the experiences of the players are relevant – from agitating against employers for pay and rights to seeking acceptance in society while doing what they enjoy. To most fans it is a whole new world waiting to be discovered and it will not disappoint. The game is growing in leaps and bounds. The standards are being raised every day and with more people watching the sport, women’s football will keep growing. One can be hopeful that this growth will allow us to think beyond the blinkered idea of gendered spaces and help us to evolve towards a more equitable society. Fans should watch women’s football to be entertained and to help conceive a world where a girl wanting to play football is simply welcomed and encouraged on the pitch. It’s hardly revolutionary, but it’s something football needs.
Debobroto Sensharma is a PhD student in chemistry at Trinity College Dublin and Samyobrata Mukherjee is pursuing a PhD at ICFO – the Institute of Photonic Sciences in Barcelona. Both have been lifelong football fans.