How I got a kick out of covering women's soccer

The
female equivalent of the European Championships had no prima donna
players or frazzled hordes of sports reporters – and it was bliss, says
Andrew Warshaw

WITH THE WORLD CUP
qualifying campaign finally over and England’s place secured after
months of nail-biting tension, innumerable column inches and no little
Sven bashing, attention now turns to the finals in Germany next summer.

This is the time when sports editors start knocking on the door of
those who pull the purse strings in an attempt to secure the largest
possible budget they can muster for what is widely regarded as the
biggest single sporting event on the planet with the possible exception
of the Olympic Games.

They will argue that the more staff they
can send to Germany, the more comprehensive their coverage will be,
regardless of monstrous hotel bills and travel expenses, meal
allowances and a whole host of incidental costs. With editorial budgets
being slashed everywhere, it promises to be a lively debate.

For
reporters lucky enough to make it to Germany, the World Cup, as ever,
will be the highlight of their working year. Nothing beats it for the
crackling atmosphere in and around the stadia or the camaraderie of
meeting up with international colleagues you haven’t seen for four
years.

Yet as every football writer will tell you, it can also be
a highly stressful experience. Anyone who has covered a major football
championship – and I began at the start of the 80s – knows how
important it is to keep your cool in what is often ferocious heat.

There
are the queues for accreditation and press badges, the search for a
decent desk, the desperate hope that laptop connections will work in a
foreign land (“better than sex”, I remember one colleague saying when
his finally sprang into action in Korea in 2002) and a mad scramble for
match tickets you have ordered weeks in advance, but which are not
always there for you to pick up on arrival.

All these thoughts
entered my head a few months ago on day one of the women’s equivalent
of the European Championships, played on home soil, as my train pulled
into Manchester station after a three-hour delay somewhere in the
vicinity of Bletchley and kick-off fast approaching. I knew from past
experience that uncollected match tickets are eagerly snapped up by
other reporters placed on a waiting list.

Not this time. I may
have been about to cover the biggest single football tournament in
Britain since Terry Venables’s team reached the semi-finals of Euro
’96, but there was one major difference.

This one was the female
version, and what a relief it was on arrival at the stadium to find no
hordes of stressed-out impatient hacks and an already prepared badge.

If
it had been the World Cup in Korea and Japan three years ago and I’d
arrived that late, I’d still be queuing now. On second thoughts, no I
wouldn’t: Oriental trains function like clockwork.

And so, for
the most part, did covering the European Women’s Championship. “Chalk
and cheese” is the expression that springs to mind when it comes to
comparing the stress level of working for 10 days at a relatively
low-key women’s football tournament with the tribulations of a
high-profile men’s championship. The women’s game may still be very
much in the developmental stage in this country, but from a media
standpoint that was no bad thing as organisers bent over backwards to
be as accommodating and patient as possible in the absence of banks of
press-room computers giving all the latest stats about every single
team and player.

Try interviewing an England player during a
men’s tournament and the only chance you get (officially at least) are
those post-match media scrums, otherwise known as the mixed zone, or
staged daily news conferences when you are invariably battling with the
rest of the media hounds. With the women so keen to raise the profile
of the game, it was a question of take your pick – professionally
speaking, of course.

Even two weeks before the tournament began,
England captain Faye White sat in an armchair at FA headquarters in
London and discussed everything from having to work for a living to
Fifa president Sepp Blatter’s infamous remarks about women players
needing to wear skimpier outfits. Imagine David Beckham making himself
similarly available.

Not everyone was satisfied with the
facilities and organisation, however. Heavy-handed bureaucracy at times
got in the way of innocent fun, such as the time when the bigwigs from
Uefa, European football’s governing body, ticked off the BBC’s roving
radio reporter for holding impromptu pitch-side interviews with the
fans. No broadcasting rights, it turned out.

Then there was the
Norwegian agency reporter who, right on deadline and informed by the
stewards that time was up and he was being turfed out, responded that
they would have to call the police to remove him. “I’ve covered every
World Cup and European Championship for as long as I can remember and I
have never been thrown out before,”

he said before making an official protest. Women’s football is big in Norway.

But in general, the enthusiasm and dedication of those running the event could not be faulted.

The
BBC certainly played its part, with both radio and television
presenting live coverage of England’s games plus the final between
Norway and Germany, with a late-night highlights programme embracing
the rest.

Five Live cleverly played the female card by installing
Jacqui Oatley, a regular Saturday afternoon reporter during the men’s
season, as one of its two co-commentators. This was a first for Oatley,
who used to play for Chiswick Ladies before rupturing her knee
ligaments and spending the next 10 months on crutches.

The fact
that there were only about 100 accredited reporters, compared with the
thousands who will swarm into Germany, obviously made life easier. But
even that figure had organisers purring with delight.

“Usually,
at a women’s international, we’d get maybe 15 journalists max so this
has been a huge elevation in terms of media interest,” said Alex Stone,
the FA’s media officer. “We talked to a lot of sports editors before
the tournament and in general the response was very positive, though
obviously it was a shame a lot of British papers gave up on it after
England went out.”

And there’s the rub. Women’s football may have
been a delight to cover as it occupied a prominent place in the
national sports pages for a couple of weeks, but little has been seen
or heard of it since.

That, sadly, is the nature of the beast in
a country where, like it or not, the men’s game rules. Not least
because this time, according to those in the know, England – with
arguably their most talented group of players for two generations –
have never had a better chance of finally emulating the heroes of 1966.
Watch this space…

Andrew Warshaw was sports editor of The European and is now a freelance sports journalist

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