Spain 2019. San Pedro del Pinatar Stadium in Murcia. Scotland vs Brazil (the women’s squads). The crowds are sparse, but enthusiastic. At first Brazil create most of the opportunities. But then – in the 37th minute – Lizzie Arnot crosses to Kim Little, who slots it into the goal. The game ends 1-0 to Scotland. A triumph and morale booster in advance of the women’s World Cup in June.
Admittedly, the two games are not directly comparable. Brazil’s female players are not footballing titans in the way the men are. Last week’s match was a friendly. And the squad has lost nine games in a row. Even so: Brazil are ranked 10th in the world – 10 places above Scotland. Beating them is a huge achievement and evidence that our national women’s squad is a force to be reckoned with.
The contrast between the men’s and women’s game in Scotland is now impossible to ignore. In the past few years, their trajectories have been mirror images, the men’s going down, the women’s up. Not long before the women’s team won against Brazil, the men’s team lost to Kazakhstan (ranked 72 places below Scotland). Old timer Alex McLeish, controversially appointed to manage the men’s team, faces constant criticism, while Shelley Kerr, manager of the women’s team is justly feted. And the women’s team has now qualified for two major tournaments on the trot – the Euros 2017 and the World Cup 2019 – while the men’s team hasn’t qualified for one since 1998.
With success has come a degree of acceptance. Six women’s league matches a year are now shown live on BBC Alba along with the Scottish Cup and League Cup finals. And major retailers are increasingly keen to be associated with the success of the women’s game; last week saw Spar signing up as a sponsor of the national squad.
This is something of a miracle in a country where women’s football has traditionally been regarded as a joke. It is just six years since Tam Cowan suggested Fir Park should be torched to cleanse it after it hosted a women’s match and Gordon Parks suggested there was no justification for spending money on the women’s game. Low-level sneering persists, with sociology lecturer Stuart Waiton recently claiming support for the women’s game was both feigned and patronising.
“If I had a pound for every time someone told me women’s football was shite, I would be a very rich man,” says Alan Campbell, one of the few male sports writers to have taken it seriously for many years.
One of the reasons Campbell was keen to give it coverage at a time it was deeply unfashionable was the commitment of the female players. “The girls were very young but they had a lot of potential,” he says. “What I particularly admired was the dedication, the fighting against all the odds. They were prepared to sacrifice their social lives to get themselves to the level that they could play for Scotland.”
In the years Campbell has been writing about them, his faith has been vindicated. The game has gone from strength to strength. Scottish Women’s Football (SWF) – the body that governs the leagues and the cups – has invested in the grassroots. And talented players such as Gemma Fay, Kim Little and Erin Cuthbert have gone on to become stars and role models.
“Every year at our landmark events [the league and cup finals] the buzz just grows and grows,” says Vivienne MacLaren, chair of SWF. “We had flames of confetti at last year’s cup final. It signalled that this was a really important event and made it much more of a spectacle.”
Margot McCuaig, one of the UK’s top sports documentary makers, believes the current success is the result of years of hard work by organisations such as BBC Alba, which has followed the women’s game for 10 years. “It’s been a slow build,” says McCuaig. “But success breeds success. When players start performing better the game becomes more attractive to the media and to audiences and most importantly to potential players: young girls can finally see someone they aspire to be.”
Yet, in some respects, Scotland remains behind the curve. Interest in women’s football has exploded across the globe. Last month, a league match between Atletico Madrid and Barcelona in the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium broke records for a women’s club match, with a crowd of 60,739.
Though a recent report found the Scottish Premiership was one of the (proportionally) best attended leagues in the world, with more than 11,000 attending an average top tier match in the past five years, some Scottish Women’s Premiership League (SWPL) matches here would be lucky to attract a few hundred.
On top of that, the progress towards professionalisation has been slow. This season, the English FA introduced new licensing criteria requiring all members of the FA Women’s Super to pay their players full-time, ensure a minimum of 16 “contact hours” per week and introduce an academy to nurture the next generation of players. In Scotland, many top-flight clubs have paid little more than lip service to their women’s teams.
Indeed, the success of Scotland’s national squad relies on its best players moving to English and other European teams. “In some ways we have been very fortunate that there has been professional football in England because, without it, our top players would have found it very hard to get the environment necessary for the fitness levels they have achieved,” says Campbell. The downside, of course, is that Scottish clubs – which have nurtured that talent – are unable to hold on to their best players.
The question is: how can Scotland capitalise on the rising profile of the women’s game and the success of its national squad to overcome those obstacles? How can we change our footballing culture so the women’s game is no longer seen as second-class?
Karen Grunwell, a post-graduate researcher at Stirling University, is collating information on the history of the women’s game in Scotland. Having spoken to those who played and managed in the past, she knows better than most how retrogressive attitudes have hampered progress.
“Part of the problem has been the media backing up the SFA’s views about a women’s place not being in football,” says Grunwell.
“Some of the stuff from the Sixties is incredible. I spoke to one woman whose mum was the manager of the local team, but she was pictured hanging the kit on the washing line.
“And [a report] about the team which played the first international up here [Scotland vs England in Greenock] in 1972 talks about these lovely ladies with their stylish locks and nice nails.”
In the past two years, media attitudes have changed. The Euro 2017 finals were celebrated with much hype, including TV advertising campaigns, Panini sticker books and the matches shown on C4.
A respectable contingent of fans went to Holland to watch Scotland play. More are expected to travel to France for the World Cup in June; and yet Campbell believes many Tartan Army “foot-soldiers” will not bother to make the journey, seeing the women’s game as a sanitised event for families with young children.
“A lot of this is about how it’s framed to fans of men’s football,” says Grunwell. “They are always being told it’s different, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. There is a different atmosphere, but it’s just as enjoyable.”
Many of those within women’s sport in Scotland believe growth has been restricted by the Scottish Football Association and the men’s clubs, which have always regarded the women’s game as peripheral. The lack of financial input is a source of resentment. The English FA has invested millions in the club system. The SFA is responsible only for the national squad and has invested far less; but, at the same time, it is the only organisation allowed to apply for funding from Fifa and Uefa.
In particular, there is much speculation about what will happen to the $1.2 million the SFA will receive from Fifa because the women’s team qualified for the World Cup. Will it be used to grow the women’s game?
Equally frustrating is the noncommittal attitude of many of the men’s clubs. “Up until recently, a lot of the men’s clubs weren’t supporting the women’s teams in any way bar ‘Here’s some strips, now go away and do your training and we don’t care who you get in as coach,’” says MacLaren.
Some of the big teams do now appear to be moving in the right direction. Hearts owner Ann Budge is setting up a women’s academy (identical to the men’s academy) and has appointed Kevin Murphy, who introduced the women’s academy at Manchester City, to run it. Celtic has pledged to become the first Scottish club to set up a full-time professional women’s club and Rangers is offering modern apprenticeships to female players.
The previous lack of support from the men’s clubs, however, has had an enduring impact on attendances. The reason the likes of Barca and Atletico Madrid can – on occasion – draw huge crowds to women’s league games is because the clubs have given their women’s teams their imprimatur (and sometimes offer free tickets).
MacLaren says Scotland’s Lana Clelland, striker for Fiorentina, is playing in front of decent crowds every week. She was on the field during last month’s game against Juventus at the Allianz Stadium where the club’s decision to give free entry resulted in a record-breaking Italian club crowd of 39,000 (mostly Juve fans). “It’s up to the men’s clubs to do that,” says MacLaren.
There are possible explanations as to why the Scottish men’s clubs have done less to promote women’s teams than some of their European counterparts. One of them – at least on the west coast – is the domination of Rangers and Celtic (and the associated sectarianism). In 1998, Laura Montgomery and Carol Anne Stewart set up the successful Glasgow City FC partly to avoid the toxicity of Old Firm rivalries.
There is also the small matter of money. As Campbell points out, the five top European footballing nations – Spain, France, Italy, Germany and England – are awash with cash. “They can afford to sink half a million or even a million in their women’s teams without worrying about it,” he says. “The only club in Scotland that could afford to do that is Celtic and arguably not even them.”
Grunwell believes the problem may be more about mindset. “I think there’s something different about the Spanish and Italian clubs,” she says. “For supporters there, the club is not a team, but a family of teams, and if they support the club, they will support all the teams. My question is: do fans of Celtic and Rangers regularly attend their youth matches? If not, then adding the women’s team in as another element of the family of teams wouldn’t necessarily increase support.”
MacLaren says that when Lisa Evans played for Bayern Munich the women’s team won the Bundesliga the same year as the men’s team. “There was an open top bus for the men and the women,” she says. “That is a question of attitude. I keep going on about this, but it’s the culture of men’s football in this country that is the blocker.”
Securing more funding is a priority, but so is building a brand based on values. Without sponsorship from gambling companies such as William Hill and Ladbrokes, the men’s game would collapse, but Scottish Women’s Football has already decided that kind of sponsorship is inappropriate for them.
Some within the game feel this is foolhardy; after all, money is money. But MacLaren insists the decision is attracting a different kind of sponsor including Scottish Building Society – a deal which allowed SWF to offer prize money – and Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems.
SWF is also working with the SFA to change the rules so clubs who have nurtured young talent are entitled to compensation (as men’s clubs are) when their players are scooped up by other, professional teams.
“Can you imagine if Glasgow City and Hibs had got a few grand for all the players they have lost?” says MacLaren.
Her biggest ambition is to see all eight of the teams in the SWPL turn semi-professional before she has to hand over to another chair in two years’ time.
The 2018/19 season has been particularly difficult for the men’s game, both domestically and internationally. At home, there has been an upsurge in trouble on and off the pitch; flares set off, missiles thrown and scuffles between players.
There have been accusations of cronyism over McLeish’s appointment after SFA president Alan McRae boasted he had been chair of McLeish’s testimonial committee in 1989. And, of course, there has been the national team’s execrable performance.
Who or what is responsible for the decline? Some blame the pro-youth system introduced in 1995 – just a few years before Scotland stopped qualifying for major tournaments. Others say there’s an element of bad luck; with the exception of Andrew Robertson, few players with star quality have emerged. Perhaps the performance schools, introduced a few years ago, will improve matters, but, for the moment, the men are stuck in a rut.
The rise of the women’s game, on the other hand, looks set to continue. Kerr is being heralded as the ideal manager to have taken over from Anna Signeul, whom some regarded as too loyal to ageing players. According to MacLaren, Kerr has introduced new training regimes and has a huge pool of talented players to choose from.
In 2017, Scotland crashed out of the women’s Euros in the first round; but they were beset by injuries. This time everyone is in good shape and the squad will head to France with high hopes.
Before that, on 28 May, however, they will take on Jamaica in their final warm-up at Hampden. It is hoped fans will turn up in their thousands to give them a proper send-off.
Campbell believes they have a real prospect of making it past the group stages. If that happens they will be the first Scotland team of either sex to do so. “Imagine the excitement. It will really grip the nation,” says Campbell. “I can remember when Scotland reached the final of the under-16 World Cup in 1989 – everyone was transfixed.”
Whatever the result, the fact the national women’s squad has made it this far is something to be celebrated. Doubly so if it marks the moment that the Scottish footballing establishment finally invests its faith and its finances in the women’s game.