Friday, June 27, 2008

Who cares about offside? - Women rule at the Euros

Euro 2008.
The women are coming (no pun intended):

The EURO 2008 organisers might have breathed a sigh of relief when the expected English invasion was cancelled by Croatia's third goal at Wembley last autumn, but they did not bank on an even greater influx to the finals, largely unexpected, and female.

Hail, hail, the skirts are here. The British Isles might be cast adrift from the goings-on at the European Championship, but most European watchers have by now picked up on the fact that females are in on the footy act in big numbers.

The big-match experience in the city centre fan zones, where the majority of fans have congregated for games, have been universally punctuated by shrill feminine screams, girls decked out head-to-toe in the colours of the country of their choice that evening*, and over-zealous female cheering of events of which most (male) remain the wiser.

Even Turkey, the only Muslim nation in the finals and thus notoriously a second-class country for women, has been cheered by huge numbers of veiled female fans.

It's not the first time that women en masse have got a taste for football, but it is the largest occurrence of this recent phenomenon yet. Are they just bandwagon-jumpers and excuse for a party-seekers, and if they are, does it matter as long as everyone is happy?

The ticketed fans still appear to be 90% male in composition in Austria and Switzerland, though you would not know that for the TV editors' sleazily repetitive homing-in on whatever half-decent totty they can locate in the stands.

Undeniably, football following has changed over the past few years. Now you are more likely to travel to an overseas tournament without any hope of gaining stadium entry than you are to travel to see the games in person.100,000 English were estimated to have been in Cologne in 2006, 150,000 Dutch in Basle in 2008.

While the Swiss and Austrian media had picked up the trend as soon as the fan zones had opened, the latest TV ratings from Germany are astonishing: 14.2 million females watched Germany defeat Turkey as opposed to 13.5 million males. The World Cup effect in Germany has also translated into Vfl Wolfsburg having a 30% female fan make-up, and Hanover 96 selling a quarter of its season-tickets to women.

The most prominent of the EU leaders at EURO 2008 has been female. German Chancellor Angela Merkerl was seen chatting to Bastian Schweinsteiger in the stands and made it her business to be the first person to speak to coach Joachim Löw after the referee sent him to the stands during the Germany v Austria clash in Vienna.

The old command issued to English fans to not travel if you don't have tickets was overturned by sheer numbers of football-holidaymakers, of whom women formed a large part.

The increased interest in football as a pastime and entertainment has inevitably entailed an increase in female fandom. After the countrywide party atmosphere of Germany 2006, EURO 2008 has seen girls and women quite happy to face-paint and wear country colours to watch games quite independently of any male contact.

Football has suddenly become more sexually egalitarian, and I welcome that. While it is fair to say the average male fan possesses a deeper knowledge of the game than the average female fan, all, irrespective of origin, must be made welcome.

The ugliness of hooliganism withers faster than ever the more women are around football, which can only be a good thing. Only boneheads and misogynist dinosaurs argue for sexism in football in 2008, inspired by a fear of change and a rage at the passing of time, but their position is one they would not dare transfer to other arenas of public life. Racism was once the norm in society, so let us hope sexism in soccer becomes as wholly unnacceptable, too.

At the end of the day, the world's number one game has to be there for everybody to partake of without exception, and unreconstructed males will have to evolve to stop using football as a private cell of frustration release, or die out.

When there are pretty and fun-loving females only a stone-throw away, apparently mad about football, what sort of man would turn a blind eye anyway?

* 'Fan tourism' has been more visible than ever before at this edition of the Euros. You would have been hard pressed to find a Portuguese amongst those wearing red and green against Germany, ditto a bona-fide tulip from the orange-clad hordes in Vienna against Russia, etc
(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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