Belfast Telegraph

Women's World Cup reminds us what football should be about

By Henry McDonald

So, what a way to count in the first hours of your 50th birthday: to stay up watching the USA comprehensively beating Japan in the Women's World Cup final.

Thanks to Carli Lloyd and her crew, that passage from my forties into the big five oh went a whole lot smoother in the early hours of yesterday.

When you reach 50 - or so the cliche goes - you become more cynical and conservative. Carlo Gebler, the Fermanagh-based novelist, has captured this change-of-life-crisis perfectly towards the end of his new memoir, Confessions of a Catastrophist, when he confesses that his thoughts these days are "more Daily Mail than Guardian".

I am happy to report that my middle-age metamorphosis has not lurched too far to the right and I still refuse to accept free copies of the Irish Daily Mail when I pay for the Guardian every Saturday morning in Connolly Station before boarding the Dublin-to-Belfast train.

There is, of course, one passion in my life that has been tainted with cynicism and world-weariness - football. The recent scandals involving Sepp Blatter and the Fifa kleptocrats; the inflated wages of Premier League players alongside the venality of their agents; the influence of Russian billionaires and Gulf sheikhs in delivering trophies to a chosen golden circle of clubs and the rising price of going through the turnstiles at top-flight matches is enough to put you off following what is still laughably called "the people's game."

Yet the joy and the elation of the US team and the tears of the Japanese players in Vancouver remind you of the brighter side of world football.

The entire tournament has been a pleasure to watch and even England's agony in the semi-final provided the same type of drama on an international stage that we haven't seen since I was at Italia '90, when we had Gazza's tears and another heartbreaking penalty shoot-out.

Carli Lloyd's hat-trick produced the high-point of the competition and was a feat last matched by one of her male counterparts in a World Cup final, Geoff Hurst's three goals in 1966. She also became the dominant actor in the tournament in the same way Maradona did back in Mexico '86.

In a hiatus year between the men's World Cup and the European Championships, in an otherwise football-free early summer, the women from the USA, Japan, England and all the other teams at the competition gave us some heartening reminders of what the game should be about.

One thing, for instance, mercifully absent from the women's matches was petulant arguing with the officials and a distinct lack of fake injury/play-acting.

There were 22 feminists on a pitch in Canada last Monday morning - no, that is not the start of some 1970s-style Bernard Manningesque so-called "joke". Rather, it is an observation about the way the American and Japanese female footballers were role models in their sport; not only for millions of young girls and women around the world who want to play football, but also for us male fans to pay more attention to and give deeper respect to the women's game.

All of the international sides in Canada, especially the finalists, are winners in that they have struck a blow for female sporting equality, or at least advanced the struggle towards that goal in the global game.

They did so unconsciously by simply playing the game they love and, in doing so, they also gave this old crock 90-plus minutes of joy just as he reached half-a-century.

Henry McDonald is a Cliftonville and Everton fan and hopes to follow Northern Ireland around France next summer

Belfast Telegraph


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