Thursday, 16 August 2012

Now that it's over: the women, 2

The first couple of times I saw women's football matches - an international and a club match, both on TV - I didn't think I would want to watch it again. The game was distinctly slower, less dynamic and less skilful. A well-meaning journalist would now and then write up women's football and praise it but people often describe things not as they are but as they think they ought to be, in the hope that if they say so often enough, things will be so.

It was different this time: the game had speeded up, the players were more powerful, the skill - as you can see in the short clip above - was impressive. It was more like watching a men's game. Furthermore the matches were the same length as the men's, unlike in tennis where the matches are shorter, so the stamina and athleticism were equivalent. The bone-crunching tackles were not quite as ferocious as they can be in the men's game but the contest was stern enough.

The GB team - I always found the term Team GB a little twee - was quite impressive on two occasions but faded against Canada. Two players stick in my mind here: Steph Houghton, a solid, fearsome, clever full-back who scored goals, and a fast, elegant Scottish forward, Ellen White, both Arsenal players.


Football, like boxing, has traditionally been a men's game. My own memories of playing for my school are of rain-swept heavy pitches and a very heavy, wet leather ball  flying at my head. There was mud and furious tackling. I enjoyed it but it wasn't the pretty tika-taka of he kind you can play with a light ball on a firm pitch in the sunshine. Blokes did muddy rough things, especially in rugby, the girls flitted about on the netball court. Miss Joan Hunter-Dunn played a mean game of tennis, according to Betjeman, but he praises her as having, The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,  thus getting the best of both male and female worlds.

Once off the pitch the GB women's team reassumed the social-feminine. The hairstyles, the clothes, the bangles, even the hand gestures were distinctly womanly.

Jessica Innes had been feminine in performance. Not that she needed to try - it was just her build and the cut of her face - no one was going to mistake her for a boy, nor her grace for 'the grace of a boy'. She was not even androgynous. The hips were narrow but the slenderness, however necessarily sinewy,  was not masculine. The same, to a greater or lesser extent, could be said of most of the female competitiors - rowers, cyclists, swimmers, riders - bar a few shot-putters and weight-lifters.

The footballers though did change in performance. For the duration of the game they were playing exactly as the men did, powerful and graceful in the same way. Not that we ever forgot they were women, it was just that our comprehension of what being a woman might be included the game we were watching. I am not sure it would have been quite the same ten years ago. The game was more courageous, more cut and thrust now, not quite between genders  but partaking of both.

I enjoyed the women's games as much as the men's. Or - I want to be strictly honest - almost as much. Maybe I still feared for their injuries.

We read Betjeman's notion of the grace of a boy as an aspect of his own early sexuality. Part of the weakness of the women's game in the past had been that it could look clumsy, an attempt to force the female body into a continuous performance of male gestures that made too strong a contrast with the self-control and grace of female gesture. Grace in hobnailed boots - I think of Shirley Bassey on Morecambe and Wise - is bathos. It was uneasy.

The uneasiness seems to have gone now. There was no performance of masculinity: the feminine had expanded to include movements that once seemed awkward.

In other words the girls done good. Until the quarter-final, of course.


Bob-B said...

Women's rugby can also be very good:

MK said...

I watched a fair bit of women's Olympic football, and as it was right on the heels of the Euro Cup, a comparison between the men's and women's games at the top level was possible. I found both riveting - the women played with great speed and athleticism and skill. About the only thing I found noticeably different was the velocity on shots from distance. And though this may be subjective, I thought that the women tended not to writhe around on the ground as much trying to sell fouls, which made the game far more enjoyable for me. Here in the US, I hope a women's league can finally make it.