It’s a World Cup like any other. England are convinced this is their year, home nation France are many people’s favourites, Ireland aren’t there after a hard-luck story, and Nigeria are in dispute over bonuses.
All the matches are on free-to-air TV — RTÉ, TG4, BBC. Wallcharts are knocking around. And there are prediction competitions, features on players to watch, golden boot contenders, best kits, value bets.
This World Cup even has a Roy Keane figure. The best player in the world, sitting at home, not playing for her country because of standards.
In another sense, it’s the idealised World Cup of our childhoods, the kind of exotic tournament we pine for, before we’d become too familiar with the players and there were no surprises. Before we knew the Peruvian striker as a lad who couldn’t get his game for Watford.
Yet, Republic of Ireland international and RTÉ pundit Stephanie Roche fears the Women’s World Cup, which began last night, will drift past most people. Or worse, some will check in, demean it, and check out.
“I think there’s going to be so many critics coming out and saying, it’s not as good as men’s football, it’s this, that and the other,” she said at the launch of RTÉ’s coverage this week.
It’s a multi-generational thing. There’s a book on my shelf from 2005. When Saturday Comes: The Half Decent Football Book. A spin-off from the respected football magazine, it styles itself as the ‘complete A-Z’ of football in Britain, an irreverent encyclopedia of famous players, moments, chants, quotes, nicknames, pundits, mascots, what have you.
To give an idea of its exhaustiveness, Niall Quinn has six entries in the index, while there are profiles of the Simod Cup, Pickles the dog, the history of gypsy curses on English football grounds, and the late Graham Taylor’s portrayal as a turnip by the English tabloids.
It is the documentation of a culture and out on page 436, in the few hundred words that make up the book’s sole nod to women’s football, there is a seemingly unironic note: “The chief obstacle for the women’s game today seems to be an alternating attitude of indifference and facetiousness from the British media.”
This is a sport whose culture had been ignored. Banned for 50 years, shunted underground, generations were left struggling for a reference point. And not only in this part of the world.
“We play for a nation that doesn’t even know our names,” chorus Germany’s players in their pre-World Cup TV promos.
A breakout star taking the tournament by storm? Constant VAR controvassy? A player spending her time between matches on Love Island? England go far enough and get so carried away that we eventually gather together to watch them lose?
Would a bit of aggro do the trick? England winger Toni Duggan longs for the unpleasantness endemic in men’s football culture. In a photograph of Duggan celebrating a goal for Barcelona in March in front of 60,000 fans, there is an Atletico Madrid fan extending a middle figure in rage. She loves it.
“I’m not promoting that or saying it’s a good thing but it kind of showed what it meant to people.
“In the past, we might have lost a game and you get fans messaging you saying, ‘Ah, don’t worry, you’ve done so well’ and it can be a bit patronising. In Spain when we’re successful we’re front page of the newspaper — but then when we lose we’re slated.”
It remains to be seen if Toni gets her wish should things go south for England, but in Phil Neville they do have a gaffer ripe for root vegetable treatment. It would be a shame, though, if progress was measured in acclimatisation to the norms of the men’s game.
The absence from the World Cup of Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg, due to her dissatisfaction with the Norwegian FA, and the battles for equality being waged by the USA and Australian squads, show the distance still to travel. But women’s football has come a long way since 2005.
Talking this week about life at Lyon, for whom she scored a hat-trick in the Champions League final, Hegerberg says progress isn’t all about money, though she has “a comfortable life”.
Money is arriving, via blue-chip sponsorships, if not yet lucrative TV deals, causing BBC World Cup presenter Gabby Logan to hope the women’s game doesn’t ape the men’s and lose the “unique accessibility” to players.
Or follow its lead in pricing fans out. “Football should be about community, loyalty and inclusion — values that women’s football has in spades,” writes Kelly Welles in New Statesman. “Rather than mimicking the male game, women’s football should continue setting the examples.”
This week Ireland internationals and partners Katie McCabe and Ruesha Littlejohn spoke up for the game’s inclusivity. While examples are set by women like USA veteran Megan Rapinoe, forever ready to fight the establishment for the greater good.
“Don’t worry, you don’t need to know who we are. You just need to know what we want. We want to play our own game to our own tune,” the German World Cup advert continues.
And perhaps it doesn’t really matter how many men are persuaded to tune into the World Cup. As long as young girls who have never watched a women’s tournament on TV get to pick up the threads of a culture that extends back to the pioneering Lily Parr and the Dick Kerr ladies in the 1920s.
That they can join the dots through the Doncaster Belles to Brandi Chastain’s game-changer, to Stephanie Roche’s Puskas Award contender, and to new heroes like Sam Kerr, a dynamic talent forged in Aussie Rules. If that happens, this could be a generational thing.