Aidan Smith: Women’s football has achieved equality - the Lionesses’ brilliant backheeled goal was their Panenka

We’ve come a long, long way from Wairds Park, Johnshaven on the Kincardinshire coast, the scene over almost a decade of a hundred family football matches on warm summer evenings involving uncles and cousins, when my father remarked how all the girls including my two sisters were kicking the ball with straight legs, rather like – showing my age here – ye olde “Watch with Mother” puppet favourite The Woodentops.

Alessia Russo celebrates her wonder goal for the Lionesses in the Euros semi-final.
Alessia Russo celebrates her wonder goal for the Lionesses in the Euros semi-final.

Fast forward to Bramall Lane, Sheffield on Tuesday night when England’s Lionesses were romping into the final of the Euros. The pick of the four goals scored by the women’s team was the outrageous third by Alessia Russo. It was straight-legged but then had to be. Russo had her back to goal in a crowded penalty-box. The quickest and most unexpected thing for her to do was to hoist up her right leg and attempt a backheel. There could be no bend in the knee because all backheels requiring power, woman or man, have to be hit with the leg rigid. And in that moment a tournament which had been going pretty well, attracting big, noisy crowds in the stadiums and excitable commentators in the gantries, suddenly exploded.

Woman or man, it didn’t matter, Russo’s improv was a fantastic piece of skill. It didn’t matter that the ball travelled through the legs of the Sweden goalie. I could easily see Jordan Pickford, the England men’s team No 1, conceding like that. Ray Clemence was famously nutmegged by Kenny Dalglish and Clemence was a much better keeper than Pickford will ever be.

Can you imagine the frenzy if Harry Kane had scored that goal? The English captain is getting more and more desperate, as David Beckham was before him, to grab the headline, be the man, stay vital, nose proud on the prow. He’ll fling himself into an offside position to be on the end of a cross and hope for a favourable decision, getting away with this in Germany recently. A fortunate deflection off the backside? He’ll take it, did in the 2018 World Cup, the coup de arse after two penalties to complete a hat-trick without sheepishness against unmighty Panama.

I honestly think if Kane had contrived Russo’s artfulness to propel England’s men into a tournament final at Wembley today then Sir Keir Starmer calling for an extra bank holiday should the women triumph wouldn’t be the half of it. Kane following up with a cup-clinching winner off his conk would bring him a stamp in his honour plus a street, a train, a knighthood and – with the Tories keen to trump Starmer’s Labour – a guaranteed seat in the new prime minister’s cabinet. But enough about the men. Really, too much already.

My father’s observation wasn’t derogatory but simply him remarking on what just about everyone thought back then – the sheer and comical incongruity of the fairer sex playing football. Am I still allowed to call women the fairer sex? Isn’t it patronising? We might wonder given that the term Lionesses has caused some offence. A caller to Radio 4’s Women’s Hour after the Sweden victory asked for its use to be stopped on the grounds of being degrading and chauvinistic.

Really? I thought female lions were stronger runners and better hunters than their male counterparts who, don’t forget, are very fond of languid, regal posing. Where’s the diminishment in being known as the Lionesses? It’s a cool, fierce, sexy name and if I can’t use the word sexy in relation to women anymore then I’m cancelling my membership of the Benny Hill Appreciation Society (That’s a joke, by the way. I always preferred Dick Emery).

I suppose being dragged into the culture wars is some sort of evidence that women’s football has properly arrived. In this tournament, unfortunately without Scotland’s involvement, it has captured the imagination like never before. When the finals began I wasn’t sure I was going to watch – not because it was women’s football, I simply wanted a break from the sport – but the matches have been absorbing. Women’s football is being taken seriously now – maybe too seriously.

Reporting for the BBC, Eilidh Barbour remarked that the make-up of the Lionesses – all the players are white – pointed to a lack of diversity in the English game. Barbour knows football and has played it herself and you can see the point she was trying to make, but it came out clunky and wrong.

The team has been picked on ability; these are the best players. TV crime dramas often fill police incident-rooms with detectives of all colours of the rainbow. When told that real incident-rooms don’t look like this, the programme producers respond: “Ah, but they should.” Football cannot function like that, and Barbour wouldn’t have been suggesting as much. TV shows can aspire to an ideal, but they can also be accused of tokenism, or virtue-signalling as Barbour was, while sparking more complaints to the Beeb than Nick Kyrgios’ swearing at Wimbledon, which is going some.

Bobby Moore didn’t have this trouble when going for glory at Wembley, did he? So let’s hope the Lionesses – who love their name, by the way – can concentrate fully on the final without the hoary men’s game cliche of provocative material having to be pinned to the dressing-room wall.

It amuses me how much women’s football has borrowed from men’s: sweeper-keepers, managing the game, drawing fouls. Who said the guys were right about any of this? And who said “home and hosed” was an acceptable phrase for a commentator? But Russo’s backheel has achieved real equality, of wonder more than anything. It is the women’s game’s Panenka, the women’s game’s Maradona dribble.

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