Some people are on the pitch... they're women

4th April 1997 at 01:00
It's a sunny but chill spring day in the playground at St Patrick's primary school, Southampton. About 20 ten-year-olds are kicking footballs about - it's their turn for after-school coaching. The 15 boys are mostly wearing home or away versions of the Southampton strip. The four girls are in tracksuits. One of the trainers is their PE teacher, Simon Stanley; the other is Sue Lopez, the only female advanced-licence Football Association coach in Britain.

From today she will have another distinction: the publication of Women on the Ball , her study of women's football, which covers its history, its gender politics, its globalisation, and the lowly state of the game in Britain.

What happens during the coaching session at St Patrick's explains a lot about male-female roles in football and the chequered history of the women's game.

The practice begins with skills: learning to stop the ball and drag it back with the sole of the foot, then tapping it through an opponent's legs and running round to collect it. The girls do well at these skills.

Then it becomes more confrontational: the pupils are put in pairs and one player is asked to score as many "goals" as possible while the other tries to stop them. It's a chasing, harrying kind of routine which doesn't come very naturally to the girls, and they need plenty of encouragement from Sue.

Next comes what they've all - especially the boys - been waiting for: the five-a-side game. Here it's noticeable that the boys are practised, competitive, trying out their local heroes' tricks. The girls - who have not been kicking a ball about since the age of two - are more peripheral but not afraid to go for it when the ball comes to them. But miskicks are accompanied by an apologetic "oops" gesture and glances across to their friends on the pitch or their mums on the sideline.

When the boys make a mistake - and plenty do - they just ignore it and get on with the game. (Interestingly, when one of the bigger boys gets injured and starts to cry, it is another boy who puts a protective arm around him.)

The picture is clear: girls enjoy learning the skills of football and can compete at this age, but the boys have such a huge lead in practice and experience that they are almost playing a different game. Nevertheless, most coaching sessions at St Patrick's School have more girls than this one, so clearly parents and children now recognise soccer as a game for girls as well as boys.

As Sue Lopez's book makes shockingly clear, this was not always the case. She begins with some history which reveals that 75 years ago the committee men of the Football Association almost killed off the then flourishing game of women's football.

It had an early burst of growth in the 1890s. A woman called Nettie Honeyball organised a North versus South match at London's Crouch End in 1895 (the North won 7-1) which drew a gate of 8,000 and plenty of sexist comments about the women's appearance from a Manchester Guardian reporter.

The game's success began to worry the men of the FA. As Ms Lopez puts it: "Football was considered to be an unsuitable game for women; it offended middle-class propriety and gave concern to some of the medical profession who believed it would damage female reproductive organs."

During the First World War thousands of women took over men's roles not only in the factories but also on the sports field. A Preston engineering works Dick, Kerr had a famous team which began to play charity matches in front of huge crowds. The Dick, Kerr Ladies raised thousands of pounds and continued to do so even when the men came back from the war. The peak of their success came at Goodison Park, Liverpool, on Boxing Day 1920, when the Ladies beat St Helen's 4-0 in front of more than 50,000 people.

This was too much for the FA, and at a minuted meeting in 1921 the committee declared that football was "quite unsuitable for females", and made allegations of mishandling of charity funds. It banned women's teams from FA grounds. Deprived of its pitches and the support of the national association, the women's game contracted and fragmented.

"Women's football," as Ms Lopez says, "still revolved around festivals and fund-raising; it remained out of the public eye and localised. By 1947 there were only 17 teams left in the country. "

The story since then is of halting, patchy revival, in which Sue herself has been involved as a player, administrator and coach. The daughter of a soccer-mad mother, she grew up playing endless games on the street with boys. (That is how she learned her skills, and she's concerned that it's harder for girls to do so nowadays.)

She worked as a secretary in Southampton, and in the euphoric football year of 1966, when England's men won the World Cup, she began to play on local pitches where the ball often ended up in a freezing pond and the goalposts didn't have nets. Sue played for an insurance company team called Royex, which she helped to rename Real, after the famous Real Madrid side. Another team got sponsorship from a Southampton bookie called Charlie Malizia and duly became Inter Malizia. Eventually the best local teams formed a Southampton side. They were still banned from FA grounds, and affiliated men players weren't supposed to coach them. But some did, and after the Women's Football Association was formed in 1969 the by-now absurd ban was lifted.

In the 1970s and early 1980s Southampton was the best side in the country, winning the WFA Cup eight times. Sue was one of their stars, a dashing inside forward with a powerful shot who made 22 appearances for England, likened for her style and grace to Bobby Charlton by some observers.

In 1971 her reputation got her to Italy for a summer season with the Roma club - a semi-professional women's league team that played in front of large crowds. "It was like playing in a cup final every week, and I never tired of seeing Monday's Corriere dello Sport, carrying all the match reports," she says. Sue loved Italy, but wanted to put more into the game in England. So when she returned she trained as a PE teacher and worked for 16 years in Hampshire secondary schools. In 1985 she got a masters degree in PE from Southampton University, and later was a visiting lecturer at Roehampton Institute.

She was an unpaid worker for the WFA from the start and had high hopes for the game. But she was frustrated when a strong proposal to hold a women's World Cup in England was turned down - on the basis of a single casting vote - by the association. Without financial support from the men's FA the WFA began to wobble as the growth of women's football outstripped the infrastructure, and by the early 1990s it was falling apart in a welter of financial and administrative difficulties. In 1993 it was wound up and at last the FA took full control of, and responsibility for, the women's game - a step many other European national associatons had taken 20 years earlier.

Sue was manager of the Welsh women's national team for the l995-96 season and now works as coaching and development officer for the Hampshire FA. She sees one of her chief tasks as providing good-quality coaching for primary schools - fifteen schools have already signed up for sessions like the one at St Patrick's. She also takes courses for the two FA awards for teachers - key stage 12 and key stage 34. And she is trying to create small-sided girls' leagues wherever possible in Hampshire. Much of this activity benefits from the support of the Sports Council, the Youth Sport Trust and BT's Top Sport scheme.

Sue is aware of the lack of confidence women primary school teachers feel when faced with teaching football to boys who seem to know everything about the game. "Women coaches can help women teachers to become more confident," she says, "although there is still a tendency, even for women who are qualified, to defer to men who may have no status as coaches but are perceived as knowing more about the game."

She is also conscious that not only is there a desperate need for more, and more confident, women coaches but that the organisation of the women's game lags well behind that of some European nations and the USA, where she has taught on summer camps and where she is a director of the Women's Soccer Foundation.

A useful chapter in the book outlines the state of play in countries such as Sweden, where there are 85,000 girls under-15 playing football in a country with a much smaller population than the UK. Here, by contrast, there are probably no more than 20,000 women players, and nothing to approach the Swedish structure of local, regional and national leagues.

In the book and in conversation Sue is forthright about a game in which she has been passionately involved all her life. To her it is still frustratingly "the most junior extension of the men's game, a recreational pastime in which football is a reason to socialise and there is no notion of improving standards of play or performance".

But what's wrong with socialable recreation? "I'm not saying stop the fun, the social aspect, but if we're serious about having a good international team we need opportunities for those who want to achieve excellence. There aren't enough steps on the ladder, and the top of the pyramid - the pool of ten premier national league teams from which the England team is chosen - is too small."

She gives credit to the FA for, belatedly, trying to instal a new structure, but it's clear it will be a long, slow haul. The women's game is still small in the UK: the largest crowd for a game in the modern era was 5,471 at the England v Belgium match at Southampton in 1978 - just a tenth of the number that used to watch Dick, Kerr's Ladies in 1920.

So in a sense Sue Lopez's book tells a sorry tale of male prejudice, and sometimes of women's unwillingness to lead and manage. But it also celebrates the achievements of the hundreds of women footballers who have played and continue to play in sub-standard conditions and without the benefit of proper coaching. As a history the book delivers a solid, factual base which will be useful in schools, colleges and universities. As a handbook it provides information on which, perhaps, a bigger and better women's game can be built.

Women on the Ball. A Guide to Women's Football by Sue Lopez, Scarlet Press, #163;10.99. Available from most bookshops, or tel 0171 241 2702

Women's soccer: a new(ish) ball game

The Football Association is attempting to make up for lost time in its attitude to women's football. According to a spokesman it is aiming to build up gates by publicising major women's games, such as the recent League Cup Final at Barnet which attracted around 1,000 spectators.

Internationals played recently have drawn crowds of over 4,000. However, the low level of support for league football remains a problem and makes it difficult to attract sponsorship.

The FA would like more exposure on terrestrial television, but sees cable and satellite as better bets. The FA Women's Cup Final at Upton Park in May will be both sponsored and covered live by the UK Living channel.

As far as the England national team is concerned, the FA believes it has done creditably, considering "it is not a level playing field". It hopes to make it more level by achieving the mass participation enjoyed in Germany and Sweden, for example.

There has been some progress in coaching, but the FA's figures suggest development is still slow. For example, the number of women studying for the FA preliminary coaching award was 119 in 1991, but it was still only a modest 251 in 1995.

* For information on FA coaching courses, phone 01707 650057; for factsheets about women's and girls' football, phone 01707 647250.

The FA Women's Cup Final is on Sunday May 4 at Upton Park, London, at 3.00pm

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