Comment: Time to applaud growth of a game on the rise

Glasgow City have qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League for the second time in three years. Picture: SNS
Glasgow City have qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League for the second time in three years. Picture: SNS
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GOOD news for ­everyone ­(except misogynistic ­fossils). Women’s football is ­growing – and this time it is ­unstoppable.

Glasgow City’s qualification in midweek for the last 16 of the Champions League – the second time in three years that they have reached that stage – is just one sign of the increasing quality of the women’s game in Scotland. But there are any number of indications, both here and further afield, that we are witnessing the start of a radical transformation of the whole sport that will end with women’s football being treated on an equal footing with men’s.

As the recent BBC Alba documentary Honeyballers showed, there were two previous periods in which the women’s game flourished: the late Victorian era, and then between the two World Wars. On both occasions, a brief expansion was followed by swift suppression: the male authorities were aghast at women playing “their” game, and they succeeded in practically outlawing their involvement.

There were several factors then which left women’s football open to such attacks, and they have all either disappeared or been rendered irrelevant. Attempts to establish national competitions were short-lived, for example; now, leagues are thriving.

Men’s clubs then were usually hostile or indifferent, with those few that were sympathetic being ordered by their national associations not to host women’s matches; now, many senior clubs have women’s teams. And the sexist attacks that passed almost without comment then – in England in 1921, for example, the Football Association declared that “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged” –now meet with a robust response.

In addition to the establishment of sporting and political organisations that back women’s football, the growth of social media has helped greatly. That, too, is an irreversible change, and Scottish Women In Sport, a new charity, is just the latest organisation to help publicise women’s football via Twitter.

But, clearly, there is a long way to go. As @scotwomensport tweeted yesterday, for every article in the sports media about women, there are 53 about men.

While long-established clubs such as Hibernian, Celtic, Aberdeen and Rangers have teams in the Scottish Women’s Premier League, experience in a number of countries has shown that whenever a professional men’s club runs into financial trouble, the women’s section is invariably one of the first things to go. And, although people such as SFA chief executive Stewart Regan have been notably supportive, women remain conspicuous by their absence from the senior ranks of governing bodies.

If women’s football is to keep on expanding, those three areas – media coverage, reliance on men’s clubs and the nature of governing bodies – need to be addressed. The first is the easiest to change and, despite some evidence to the contrary, is in fact already improving. There is still a severe imbalance in every newspaper and on almost every website between men’s and women’s sport, but the most influential media organisation in the land, the BBC, has already made significant changes in its approach.

That enlightened attitude may not be immediately apparent from some of Radio Scotland’s output. But there is now a serious challenge within the corporation to the presumption that football chat should be the preserve of some of the most conservative men in the country.

When it comes to being reliant on men’s clubs, women’s football in general will have to live with that risk while its income from sponsorship and broadcasting remains comparatively small. Until something close to economic parity is achieved, independent clubs such as Glasgow City here and Turbine Potsdam in Germany will remain vital examples of the need to keep at least a section of the women’s game free from male control.

Change in the profile of those in positions of power can be brought about more quickly. The current criticism of FA chairman Greg Dyke for appointing an all-white, all-male commission to investigate the performance of the England men’s team is just one indication that wider social change is now making itself felt at the heart of what, on both sides of the Border, is the national sport.

There is a place in this world for middle-aged white males. I’m one myself and do not want to be abolished any time soon. But that place is not necessarily at the top of every organisation in the land. The sooner Scottish football stops being run exclusively by people from a very narrow section of society, the more likely it is to become open to new ideas that may just help reinvigorate the game.

That change, and others, will happen. It’s only a question of when, and how quickly. To anyone who plans to resist it, the answer is simple: Don’t waste your breath. You’re on the wrong side of history.

If you have no interest in women’s football, no worries. It’s not compulsory. But why actively disparage it, in particular by comparing it unfavourably to the men’s game?

When Serena Williams won her 17th Grand Slam at the US Open last month, no-one with any sense claimed she was useless, just because scores of men could beat her at tennis. Similarly, when Paula Radcliffe set a world record for the marathon.

And when Ricky Burns became super-featherweight world champion, no-one with the slightest knowledge of boxing said he was no good because any number of heavyweights could pulverise him.

In other words, there is no point in assessing women’s football in relation to men’s. We judge the progress of a club by how well they do against other clubs. We judge the national team according to their results against other countries.

And we assess women’s football as a whole by comparing its present state with how it was a couple of years ago. Viewed in that light, whether in Scotland or internationally, it is clear that it is growing both in numbers and in quality. Getting better all the time: and nothing will prevent that progress from continuing.

Twitter: @stuart_bathgate