What the Women’s World Cup needs is less thinkpieces

It’s always dangerous to make bigger claims for a sporting event than it deserves or needs

The handball that brought the injury-time penalty for the Netherlands against Japan looked no different to the one not given to France at the same point in their quarter-final against the USA on Friday Photograph: Stephane Mahe/Reuters

The handball that brought the injury-time penalty for the Netherlands against Japan looked no different to the one not given to France at the same point in their quarter-final against the USA on Friday Photograph: Stephane Mahe/Reuters

 

In the land war around the television in our house, sport lives and generally dies in the outer skirmishes. The Boss (4¼) will take a bit of hurling and doesn’t completely hate a spot of rugby, but in all truth they’re feeble competition for your Peppas, your Nellas, your Skyes.

Most depressingly of all, she has a particular distaste for soccer. Clearly her father’s brainwashing skills are in need of work.

That was until a couple of Saturdays ago when she ambled into the living room fully ready to demand her rights under the Geneva Convention but was suddenly stopped in her tracks. The footballers playing on screen had something strange going on with them. They had ponytails.

“Is that girls?” she asked, intrigued but wary, as though it might be a trap of some sort. Her father, in a scene that recalled nothing so much as his teenage struggles when talking to the opposite sex, immediately launched into a babbling, stuttering explanation of the Women’s World Cup and its glories and its wonders and yes they’re girls and yes, oh yes, sure amn’t I always telling you that girls can play football too and oh my God do you think you’d like to play yourself sometime and will you play for Ireland and will you win the World Cup and…

Thankfully for all concerned she had long since stopped listening and was instead watching the Netherlands play Cameroon. She didn’t last terribly long – maybe six or seven minutes before she declared herself bored and went off to set up a restaurant in her toy corner selling lasagne and Guinness and mustard. But it was by far the most sport for which she’d ever sat still on her own. A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single ponytail.

We interrupt this column to remind the author of the ongoing injunction on spurious extrapolations from minor personal events. Furthermore, we would like him to keep in mind the fact that precisely nothing of wider interest is proven by the random Saturday inclinations of any four-year-old, be they related to him or not. We would ask him to keep this in mind before launching into another tiresome parable about how a football tournament is changing the world.

Point taken. Nothing demeans a Women’s World Cup more than the tendency to velcro a wider meaning on to everything that happens in it or around it. Over the past three weeks so much of the babble around the matches has been shot through the prism of comparisons with the men’s game when really the difference is fairly basic. The Women’s World Cup is basically the men’s tournament but with more thinkpieces.

Pretty wobbly

This is never good. Everything ends up getting broad-brushed all too easily, and the conclusions reached are usually pretty wobbly. It’s always dangerous to make bigger claims for a sporting event than it deserves or needs. Everything feels bigger in the moment than it actually is. Generally, you find people mostly go back to their own lives and do their own thing as soon as they change channel.

This column remembers coming home from covering the Paralympics in London in 2012 and being certain that this was a complete game-changer for the movement, only to find that almost nobody had seen Jason Smyth and Michael McKillop win their gold medals because Ireland had been 1-0 down away to Kazakhstan for most of Friday night. All anyone was talking about the next day was the late goals by Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle. The Paralympics was strictly in the Meanwhiles.

And so it will be for women’s football. Or football, as it’s known in the game. The people involved put too much into it and know too much about reality to be patronised about what the success or otherwise of the tournament means heading into the future.

They know – far better than the rest of us dipping in from the outside every once in a while – that a big shiny World Cup is but one tiny pixel in a bigger picture that has damn little sparkle to it. Every team in the tournament has war stories to tell about the struggles of making the sport a viable professional avenue for women to go down. They’ll doubtless have them to tell in four years too.

VAR decisions

As a tournament it probably took a while to kick into gear but the knockout stages have been thoroughly compelling. After an opening couple of weeks that were dominated by VAR decisions, the organisers seem to have a change of heart halfway through the tournament and have toned down its involvement for whatever reason. The handball that brought the injury-time penalty for the Netherlands against Japan last Tuesday looked no different to the one not given to France at the same point in their quarter-final against the USA on Friday night. Weird.

The net effect was to set up a glamour semi-final between the US and England on Tuesday night. As the two best-organised teams in the tournament it wouldn’t be a surprise if it turned into a bit of a let-down. France were inventive and tricky in the quarter-final but were ground down by the States – you got the sense watching it that whereas the French might have had the X-factor to scuttle Phil Neville’s side, England could well outstay the Americans in a dour battle in Lyon.

One way or the other it will make for essential watching. Thinkpieces be damned.

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