Women working hard for a place on the punditry sofa

There was a time when a woman’s place on TV coverage of the World Cup was restricted to leering crowd shots of female fans.

Women working hard for a place on the punditry sofa

The TV match director would scour the stands with his perv-cam, selecting unsuspecting Brazilian women for the lads at home to drool over.

“And she certainly seems to be enjoying herself!” the commentator would chortle, sounding like Michael Aspel compering Miss World.

Thankfully things are much different now. Well, mostly. Match directors still allow themselves the odd creepy close-up, but this World Cup has featured women on TV….wait for it…actually TALKING about the football! Analysing it! Drawing little circles and arrows on the screen and telling us stuff!

Stuff about football!

Female presenters and reporters have long been key parts of TV coverage, but it’s the girls in the experts’ chairs that have marked this out as a breakthrough World Cup. The BBC and ITV have featured former England women’s internationals Alex Scott and Eniola Aluko, while RTÉ panels have included Irish squad members Stephanie Roche and Louise Quinn.

But the seismic changes in the studio banter-sphere have not been without incident.

On ITV, former Manchester United defender Patrice Evra was heavily criticised for bursting into applause after Aluko delivered a well-researched analysis of Costa Rica’s lack of goalscoring threat before their game with Serbia.

Evra was accused of patronising Aluko — recipient of 102 caps for England — in the way a teacher might pat a six-year-old on the head for drawing a nice picture of a tree.

Former Man United defedner Evra was accused of being disrespectful and sexist
Former Man United defedner Evra was accused of being disrespectful and sexist

Meanwhile over on the Beeb, Phil Neville repeated almost verbatim an observation of Scott’s about Colombia’s tactics, as if acting out some sort of workplace casual sexism parody.

In the current atmosphere around gender issues it is tempting to come down hard on the likes of Evra and Neville for perceived insensitivity.

But while Evra is clearly a bit of a galoot, and Neville’s foot is rarely far from his mouth, the biggest problem these football men have is that they are, well, football men.

John Giles once said that “you go into football at 15 and you come out at 35, but you’re still only 15”, and that immaturity often extends to attitudes to the opposite sex. Ex-players’ anecdotes often make football life sound part-Carry On movie, part-frat house caper.

If people holding outdated views about women are referred to as ‘dinosaurs’, football is Jurassic Park.

But change has come to the punditry sofa, with this World Cup crystallising existing trends. Back in 2015, we had Fiona Steed as a regular member of TV3’s Rugby World Cup coverage, while former Ireland captain Emma Byrne became the first female panellist for an Irish station’s coverage of a major tournament when she joined our team for Euro 2016.

Emma Byrne was part of the Euro 2016 coverage on TV3
Emma Byrne was part of the Euro 2016 coverage on TV3

Both women were very well received, the sky didn’t fall in, and you got a slight sense of something different, but good-different, as you usually do when new voices are heard.

Since then female pundits on men’s sport have become commonplace and flicking on The Sunday Game at the weekend to find Ann Marie Hayes sitting between Eddie Brennan and Anthony Daly, taken with the opening exchanges of the World Cup, was to see the new normal. But are female pundits stormtroopers for diversity or merely the recipients of boys’ club tokenism?

And why have women analyse a tournament which is played exclusively by men, when, by definition, none of them will have played at that level? Is this a box-ticking exercise by TV companies, pandering to PC appearances rather than employing the best pundit for the job?

The latter point echoes arguments against gender quotas for political office, to which I reply: trust me, all the good men pundits are on TV already, along with plenty of rubbish ones — the women aren’t keeping a battalion of proto-Gary Nevilles away from the tactical touchscreen.

And denying any one group the right to sit on a couch and say “For me, Gary…” is a troubling enough idea on its own; but saying that analysis of a cross-cultural behemoth like the World Cup should be done exclusively by men is to completely undersell what the tournament is: it’s the bloody World Cup, the clue is in the title! A World Cup for men, by men — it’s the stuff of Margaret Atwood dystopia.

The argument that only those who have played at the highest level should talk about football at the highest level is another longstanding canard. Richie Sadlier has one Ireland cap and a few seasons at Millwall to his name, while Thierry Henry won the Champions League, World Cup, European Championship — but I know who I’d rather listen to, and he’s never done a Renault ad.

That qualification — having interesting things to say — should be the only one for getting onto sports punditry panels. Of course, it isn’t: TV bosses can’t resist a bit of celebrity appeal too. While the cause of female panellists has been helped by increased coverage for the women’s game, there is some way to go before we see a figure with the public profile to muscle into a flagship men’s panel.

Still, the thought of what they could bring to the biggest matches is tantalising: imagine a female Souness, for example, a stern Scottish matriarch dismissing the tippy-tappy pretensions of some continental outfit; or a crazy-lady Dunphy, slagging off England managers.

Until then the women must do what they have always done: work harder than the men. “There’s a tendency for some male pundits who have done it for years to rock up and take it for granted,” said Aluko before the World Cup.

I can’t afford to do that so that’s why I have to geek out on all the stats and facts and make sure I am not seen as a token woman but that I’m adding to the conversation.

Such is the way of things. Ironically, we’ll only know women have fully arrived as pundits not by their excellence, marked out by impeccable research and applause of their male counterparts, but rather when they get the same sort of stick as the men.

A day when they are slated on social media not for their gender, but for making bad jokes, slagging off foreign goalkeepers, and sounding bored during big matches.

Truly, the search for the female Lawro may be the final frontier in the battle for gender equality.

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