Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Football's fairer sex
It turns out football is a lot like housework when it comes to contrasting the sexes. Men do it faster; women are better to watch, more honest about what they've done and do a lot less complaining before, during and after it.
In a snapshot, those were the lessons learned from the 2011 Women's World Cup - a wholesome celebration that left the footballing public longing for more.
As the drama unfolded, the adjective you heard time and again was "refreshing". These were international footballers, to whom reaching a World Cup was the pinnacle of their ambition, but there was such a lack of cynicism on show that you almost wondered if they knew the stakes.
Diving was virtually non-existent. Ok, there was Erika's ridiculous feigned injury at the end of the Brazil-USA quarter-final humdinger, but it only served to highlight just how rare play-acting is in the women's game compared to the theatrics we get served up in the male version on a weekly basis.
If you want evidence, take a study by Wake Forest University in North Carolina, which compared games from the Women's World Cups of 2003 and 2007 with a selection played in regional men's competitions.
The results found only half as many recorded injuries in women's matches as there were in men's. Of those, nearly twice the proportion could be deemed "genuine" - by the presence of blood, or the player being substituted within five minutes.
"We can say that men writhe on the ground looking like they're injured more than women, almost twice as often," lead author of the study Dr. Daryl Rosenbaum told the New York Times. "And when players are apparently injured, the percentage when it was authentic by our criteria was twice as high with women. You could trust more that they were injured."
A recent study by German sports scientist Martin Lames compounded the argument. He found men spend an average of 30 seconds longer on the ground when they're injured than women. They also take nearly 10 seconds more to leave the field when they're substituted.
Women, it seems, really are football's fairer sex. But why should that be? Some suggest it's because the stakes aren't nearly as high, and when you consider the football our parents were bred on they could have a point. After all, it wasn't until obscene amounts of money poured into the men's game that diving truly took off.
Others simply argue the women's game adheres to a superior moral code.
Among them is Anson Dorrance, the women's coach at the University of North Carolina. "Women play the game with greater personal integrity and honour," he said in a recent interview.
It's hard to argue his point if you watched even a smattering of games at this summer's Women's World Cup. Not only did players steer away from feigning injuries and time-wasting, they mostly treated officials with a level of respect that goes out of the men's game the moment it becomes competitive. In England, that means Under-9 level.
The Brazil-USA quarter-final again provided a perfect example. When USA goalkeeper Hope Solo saved Cristiane's 68th minute penalty, only for the pedantic referee to order a re-take and Marta to bury it, the histrionics were noticeable by their absence.
In the game as we've come to know it, the moment was crying out for an 11-woman assault on the referee. While the players were circling the hapless official like a vigilante mob, the US coaching staff should have been gesticulating wildly on the sidelines. The whole affair should have dragged on for at least five ugly minutes.
As it turned out, all we got was a soft yellow card for Solo - who reacted with a lukewarm protest that seemed positively serene in the circumstances. The game continued with no discernible bad taste in the mouth and, as a spectacle, was all the better for it.
Watching on, you couldn't help but feel warmed by a purer take on the game than the one we obsess about all year around. At times, the tournament felt like football's lost youth recaptured, and made you wonder where the men's game had got it so badly wrong.
When it came to the football itself, we were unquestionably treated to the women's game entering new territory in terms of technique, speed and intensity. Players like Japan's inspired playmaker Homare Sawa, the irrepressible Abby Wambach of the US and the precocious Brazilian Marta helped deliver a tournament that far exceeded our expectations.
But to focus too much on individuals would belie the team ethic that was ultimately the driving force behind this Women's World Cup. This was a tournament won by the second smallest team in it, who achieved their triumph by marrying a Barcelona-esque passing game with an unselfishness that was echoed throughout their competition.
The play was slower than we're used to, but it didn't detract from the drama. And some have argued it only enhanced the flowing nature of what we were watching.
When you contrast the attractive, entertaining football we saw in Germany with the largely underwhelming, stifled affair we witnessed in South Africa last summer, there's no question the women's game did a far better job of delivering to its potential than their technically and physically superior male counterparts.
For the men's game to achieve a similar triumph in three years' time, FIFA surely must address the issue of discipline and gamesmanship with more vigour than they have it the past.
If this Women's World Cup has taught FIFA anything, it's that intensity of competition and entertainment does not have to go hand-in-hand with the kind of cynical antics that have become the acceptable face of the game.
As for the men's national teams looking towards those finals in Brazil, the lesson has surely been one of teamwork and unselfishness. Paul Scholes recently accused some of his former England team-mates of being motivated purely by their own finances, and any team carrying similar issues into the 2014 will surely fall by the wayside.
The stars of the men's game would do well to follow Sawa's example. Despite having finished top scorer and been named the tournament's best player, Japan's captain simply refused to countenance the idea that she deserved special attention.
"The team played so much of a part in me winning these awards that I can't really take any personal pride in receiving them," she said.
England fans will be hoping to hear Wayne Rooney deliver an identical statement in three years' time.