18 Aug 2023

The beautiful game

Congratulations to the Lionesses, who have reached the World Cup final. There have been scenes of jubilation at public viewings across the nation and there is a growing sense of excitement about the deciding  match on Sunday morning.

We have observed a thoroughly successful World Cup tournament with interest. The behaviour of the fans has been exemplary. The matches have drawn on an extremely varied demographic, whose main aim seems to be to have a thoroughly good time supporting their team, displaying their national allegiance (costumes, fancy dress and make-up abound) and – more importantly – to meet and mingle with opposition fans in perfect friendship and harmony.

Throughout the tournament, fans have praised the “family-friendly” atmosphere, the feelings of inclusivity and acceptance, and the civilised and courteous behaviour of all concerned. They have remarked that they feel much less daunted by women’s football than men’s, where they have witnessed fierce partisanship, taunting and jeering behaviour, and actual physical violence. Drugs and alcohol are not an issue at these games, and violent and abusive behaviour is nowhere to be seen.

Not surprisingly, this affable fan behaviour is a reflection of on-pitch manners (with a handful of notorious exceptions). Studies have shown that women football players commit less fouls and are much less prone to testosterone-fuelled tantrums when they have been the victim of a foul – scientists have proved that they actually spend less time lying on the pitch, histrionically writhing in supposed pain.

At the end of their matches, their behaviour towards the opposition team is warm and effusive and players tend to remain on the pitch for a considerable amount of time interacting with spectators, taking selfies and so on. We are told that they socialise very contentedly with their erstwhile rivals. They radiate delight and gratification at finding themselves in the spotlight, and the objects of so much approbation, scarcely surprising after the long struggle of women’s football for general recognition.

Why have women chosen, on the whole, to eschew the gamesmanship that bedevils the men’s game? We’re all familiar with the fouls, dives, shirt-pulling, time-wasting, as well as the berating of referees and linesmen, the sudden angry spats with opposition players. Clearly this behaviour emerges from a sporting culture where winning is everything, and victory must be achieved, whatever the cost. The pressures on male players are enormous, and the stakes are correspondingly high; they are paid vast sums of money, worshipped by fans, lionised by the media. They are under forensic scrutiny by fans and media alike and are used to experiencing both hero worship and withering contempt.

Nobody would dispute that women football players are powered by a palpable desire to win. But, operating in a much less highly charged arena and in some cases barely earning a living wage, they have managed to retain a certain amount of respect, consideration and humility, which is reflected in both their game and in their followers. It is to be hoped that the women’s game will retain these characteristics and continue to inspire and delight fans in equal measure. Maybe some of the excellent sportsmanship and good spirits that have suffused these World Cup matches will even rub off on male players.


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