Forgive me if the following comes across as naively euphoric. But we’ll only know it’s a truly watershed summer for women’s sport if we get through it without being overwhelmed by commentary on what men’s football could learn from it all.
They’re poorer but they’re a million times more dignified! They’re less watched but their crowds don’t have any hooligans in them! They may not have supercars but they have more nobility in their bus tickets than the entire Man City squad put together! They actually win stuff (like the chance to be used to mug off the Man City squad)!
Yup, the learning’s the worst. You know you’ve really arrived in sport when your moment of triumph is regarded as primarily useful for throwing the antics of someone completely unrelated into unsympathetic relief. You know there’s really nothing suspicious about positions which seem to prize the perceived moral superiority of one group of sportspeople over another.
And yet, and yet … need we get into all that merely hours after victory? I rather think we needn’t, but we always seem to. “What our pampered footballers could learn from our heroic Olympians.” “Footballers could learn a lot from the darts/cricketers/rugby players/hurlers.” And all the other permutations thereof.
Unfortunately, in this very exciting summer for women’s sport, it has started already. A seemingly endless parade of phone-in callers explaining the “thing or two” footballers could learn from England’s triumphant World Cup cricketers. Suggestions Johanna Konta could teach José Mourinho’s players about playing through injury. The current Euros being served as all kinds of admonishment of the other Euros.
Traditionally, the effect of all this is to relegate what should be standalone sporting victories and successes to little more than lessons for football – a sobering reminder that while it is presumably nice to win a World Cup or an Olympic gold, it does not come close to the privilege of serving as a momentary stick with which to beat Romelu Lukaku.
Of course, much of it is born from a natural and well-meant desire to emphasise the positive differences between the men’s and women’s form of a sport, such as being able to watch a European football championships in situ free from the small but unavoidably irksome minority of England fans who travel abroad with the sole intent of acting like pricks. But I can’t help feeling that any and all narratives which cast women’s sport as desirable in contrast to the men’s version, as opposed to in and of itself, risk playing conveniently into the divide-and-rule strategy which has done so much to keep women’s sport down. Pitting the experiences against each other is a false opposition, reinforcing the erroneous notion that male and female versions of a sport are a zero sum game, and that celebrating one will inevitably lead to a loss of territory for the other.
This isn’t actually how success has to work. One of Michelle Obama’s most resonant lines concerns her approach – and that of her husband – to progress and achievement. “When you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”
The real legacy-builder this summer would be if the many people involved in the men’s form of a sport – from administrators to athletes to journalists and beyond – pushed themselves to do more to elevate the women’s form. I mean, I’m sure Michelle had views about the big one: namely, what anything and everything meant for the Premier League. But occasionally, we all benefit from sweating the small stuff instead.
Summer highlights football’s mad, greedy side
A very modern form of early bath for Chelsea’s Kenedy, who has been sent home from Chelsea’s pre-season tour for his offensive social media posts about China. Kenedy has failed in his position, which – he may have been shocked to discover – is not wing-back, but corporate diplomat with special responsibility for emerging markets. In a football landscape where amazing numbers of people are able to speak of “content” without appearing remotely appalled at themselves, Kenedy has provided the wrong sort.
Last year, Manchester United’s managing director, Richard Arnold, explained again that his club is “the biggest TV show in the world”. As far as social media engagement was concerned, he explained, “the level we are engaging at, to put it in context, is akin to religion”. Arnold had previously explained that United is “a mobile-first media organisation, focused on consumable chunks of content fans can engage with on the go”.
Less of this please. Alas, summer is a time when the Premier League most closely resembles a biting satire on itself. Liberated from the passé limitations of its host organism – actual football – it exists in what many fear may be its purest form: a mixture of orgiastic financial plotlines, #content, would-be viral signing videos and ratings-grabbing summer tour controversies. These are the weeks in which it becomes impossible not to suspect that Richard Scudamore’s fantasy tie isn’t a football match at all. Rather, it is two fans in different foreign markets indulging in heated social media bantz which attempts to decipher whether the latest transfer fee shows the game has a) “gone mad” or b) “gone completely, completely mad”.
Indeed, by this stage of the summer, it is difficult not to wonder whether the inevitable switcheroo has finally taken place. Money has long been a way of talking about football – but perhaps football is now just a way of talking about money.