Ken Early: USA-England promises plenty for genuine football fans

Technical standard of football is irrelevant if you get people to care about the teams

Megan Rapinoe: involved in a Twitter spat with Donald Trump after making it clear she had no intention of visiting the White House should the USA win the Women’s World Cup in France. Photograph: Benoit Tessier/Reuters

Megan Rapinoe: involved in a Twitter spat with Donald Trump after making it clear she had no intention of visiting the White House should the USA win the Women’s World Cup in France. Photograph: Benoit Tessier/Reuters

 

A few weeks ago I was in a taxi across town and the driver was telling me his son was a young footballer with one of the Dublin clubs.

Like almost everybody else, he thought that the youth development structures in Irish football were a shambles, and he had some critical words for the FAI’s high performance director, Ruud Dokter.

“Your man was the master of ladies’ football in Holland,” the driver said. (Dokter managed the Dutch women’s national team from 1995 to 2001). “Ladies’ football! What does that have to do with developing players in Ireland?”

Then he seemed to remember something, and grinned.

“Actually, they had one of them on telly the other week, one of the women’s matches. I says to me son – I had to look around to make sure my wife couldn’t hear. I says – come here and see – look – the Special Olympics is on.”

The US national team have proven themselves the women’s game’s greatest promotional asset. No other team provokes such strong reactions

At some point in the last few weeks, many of us will have spoken to somebody like that driver, who says they won’t watch the Women’s World Cup because the standard of play is no good.

This is mostly untrue, and completely unfair. The Women’s World Cup has been going for 28 years. If you look at footage from the men’s World Cup of 1958 – 28 years into that competition’s history – you’ll see action that scarcely resembles the top level of the sport today. Technical quality in all sports evolves over time and it’s clear that the top teams in women’s football are making rapid progress.

But a more important point is that the technical standard of a football match is almost completely irrelevant to how entertaining it can be. The only thing that really matters is whether you care about the teams.

So how do you get men to care?

Back in 2004, Sepp Blatter was still arguing for tighter shorts. Fifteen years on, the senior echelons of football administration and media are showing more respect. The 2019 World Cup has had a huge marketing push from the BBC, with celebrities lining up to profess their love of the Lionesses.

This sort of top-down promotion certainly helps to raise awareness about the tournament. Whether it can make people care about it is less certain. Celebrity-led hype feels a bit astroturfed. Neither will many people be persuaded by the argument that you should watch the Women’s World Cup because you watch the men’s version and, well, fair’s fair. Presenting it as a kind of moral duty is not the way to engender mass enthusiasm.

Promotional asset

Neither are the well-intentioned claims sometimes made by commentators about the relative purity of women’s football compared to the cynicism of the men’s game.

For example, in the closing stages of England’s win over Norway, the Norwegian striker Lisa-Marie Utland dribbled past England keeper Karen Bardsley and was clipped on the ankle. Utland stayed on her feet rather than going down for what would have been a certain penalty.

People whinge about diving but in that moment you understood that “winning” a penalty in that situation is not just what is expected of today’s players, it’s what is demanded of them. We have reached a point where staying up looks inept.

In the end it turns out the best promotional work is done by the teams themselves, and over the last few weeks the US national team have proven themselves the women’s game’s greatest promotional asset. No other team provokes such strong reactions.

They set the tone with a 13-0 destruction of Thailand in their opening match, which was notable for the way goals 11, 12 and 13 were celebrated with much the same gusto as goals one, two and three. This annoyed a lot of people; have they no sense of decency? The Americans were unapologetic, and in the next game, against Chile, Carli Lloyd mocked the critics by celebrating her opening goal with an absurdly genteel handclap.

Americans lording it around France – a bit like Lance Armstrong, but 23 of them. They project a similar abrasive, elite-jock charisma. Some consider them unlikable, but as with Armstrong, unlikable doesn’t mean unwatchable – hate-watching enemy teams is just as satisfying as supporting the ones you like.

Europeans sniff that the Americans are playing football of a previous generation – fast, physical, direct, basic, brutalist, unsophisticated. The American attitude is: if you’re so great, why can’t you beat us?

Neville would not have had the career he has had if he was the type to quit at the first setback

“I find European football sometimes a little boring,” their creative forward Tobin Heath said last week. She seemed to mean that the Europeans are too obsessed with passing and build-up play – have they forgotten where the goal is? Just get it into the box, shoot and go again. It looks as though the European nations are catching up on the US, but the Americans are determined that it won’t happen this year, not yet.

Their quarter-final victory against France was the type of stylistic clash that used to be more common in the men’s World Cup, before the convergence and homogenisation of the last 20 years.

The French had the technical ability, but the Americans had power, resilience, and ruthlessness. They got in front early, double-marked France’s star winger Kadidiatou Diani, and challenged France to open them up. The intense psychological pressure proved too much for the French. The performance was businesslike, or as an American reporter put it to US coach Jill Ellis, “very blue collar, very lunchbucket”. But these Americans care more about winning than winning with style.

Odd performance

Both of their goals were scored by Megan Rapinoe, playing her first match since footage emerged of her saying “I’m not going to the fucking White House” [if the team is invited there for winning the World Cup], which predictably prompted a Twitter retort from president Trump: “Megan should WIN first before she TALKS... Megan must never disrespect our Country, the White House or our Flag, especially after so much has been done for her & the team,” etc.

If Rapinoe was intimidated she kept it well-hidden, and her stance was supported by team-mate Ali Krieger, who told Trump “I know women who you cannot control or grope anger you, but I stand with @mPinoe . . .”

Knowing that Trump is desperate for them to lose, and that this feud isn’t over yet, adds an unexpected layer of intrigue to their matches.

Next up for the Americans is a semi-final against England, their noisiest opponents yet. It hardly seems possible that it’s only five years since England’s coach Phil Neville was being slaughtered for his odd performance as co-commentator on England’s World Cup match against Italy, when for some reason everything he said was muttered tersely under his breath, as though he and his commentary partner were huddled in a wardrobe, hiding from a killer.

Neville would not have had the career he has had if he was the type to quit at the first setback. If co-commentator Phil was derided as low-energy, the knobs on England boss Phil go up to eleven. Phil 2.0 is brash and bombastic and shoots from the hip. The messianic tone of some of his pronouncements – e.g. “I came to this World Cup to be successful, but also to play a part in making women’s football globally more visible, globally better” – has at times invited ridicule, but he has at least succeeded in drawing attention to his team.

Tomorrow night will see Lucy Bronze, repeatedly billed by Neville as the best player in the world, going up against Rapinoe, the star of the knockout phase so far.

English and American media are both already billing this semi as the real final, America’s imperial might against England’s upstart audacity. There will be tears of glory and tears of pain, somebody’s hype train is about to career off the rails. If that doesn’t make you want to watch, well, maybe football is not your game.

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