Sexing up the game

Rachel Brown is the England and Everton FC goalkeeper. She has abandoned her goalkeeping gloves and is knocking a ball around in pink kitten heels and a pink cutaway vest top, her blonde ponytail gleaming.

In another photograph she has got her gloves back on, as an accessory to a black cocktail dress, and is waving them at the camera, perhaps to remind us what it is about her we are meant to be interested in.

The photographs appear in the Look Book, a glossy brochure featuring four members of the England women’s football team.
It has been produced by the FA to ignite interest in the women’s game generally, and the European Championship in particular, which will be held next year in the United Kingdom.

Alongside the women in the Look Book appear the captions ‘feminine’‘, ‘glamorous’‘, ‘athletic’’ and ‘fun’‘. The girls, as they are called, ‘are as dazzling off the pitch as they are on it’‘. The message is: ‘In football, girls really are on top.’’ No sexual innuendo intended, says the FA.

The Look Book is surprising because it is intended to correct denigrating remarks made recently by the president of football’s international ruling body about the female players within his association’s care.

Sepp Blatter suggested he had a vision of how the women’s game might take itself forward, might finally bring itself to the wider notice it craved. His thought was that if only women would adopt ‘a more female aesthetic’’ when playing football — ‘they could for example have tighter shorts’’ — more people might take an interest.

Players from Norway to Charlton were horrified. The FA condemned his suggestion as ‘impractical and demeaning’‘. The Look Book is its ‘hearty riposte’‘.

But how does the FA’s portrayal of its women players differ from Blatter’s seemingly sleazy recommendations? It does not seek to generate interest in the men’s team through stylised titillation and overstated messages of masculinity, so why is it seeking to sell its women on the basis of their sexual appeal — and stereotyped designations of sexual appeal at that?

To find out, you have to go back to the moment when women’s football entered the British public’s field of vision.

It was the summer of 1999. About 90 000 people had gathered at the Rose Bowl in California to watch the United States women play China in the final of the World Cup. The match was level when the final whistle went. A penalty shootout would determine the winner. Brandi Chastain was the fifth US player to walk up to take her shot. If she scored, her team would be the best in the world.

Whipping off her shirt in elation at her triumphant kick, her sports bra looking the television cameras square in the eye, Chastain presented women’s football worldwide with its greatest lift and its trickiest dilemma. For the first time in its history, the game had sex appeal.

The images of Chastain went around the world. The US players went on to endorse everything from Gatorade energy drinks to Dunkin’ Donuts. Mia Hamm, Chastain’s celebrated teammate, was named one of the US’s 10 most marketable athletes, male or female.

But Chastain’s had been an individual, celebratory act of the moment every footballer, male or female, dreams of. It had taken place on the football pitch. She looked sexy because, among other things, she was successful, brave, athletic, impulsive and convincing.

‘The women have enough credibility as tremendous soccer players that this country has accepted them for who they are,’’ says Hamm’s agent, Dan Levy.

But there is another reason why the US’s female footballers have found it easier to persuade their public they are worth watching. Men’s football has never been more than a minority sport, crowded out by American football, baseball and basketball. Unlike in the UK, football in the US has no masculine heritage.

Brown, like many of her England teammates, had her first taste of the game as the only girl in the school team. She is a goalkeeper now because that was the only place the boys would let her play: ‘They were reluctant to let me join in. It was a case of, ‘OK, if you must play you’d better go in goal.’‘’

‘The Look Book is trying to put across a girly look and show that it’s not a masculine thing to play football,’’ says Brown. ‘It’s trying to show that women don’t have to be…’’ She pauses. ‘In the past,’’ she explains, ‘the sport has been stereotyped as a bit butch, a bit masculine. That’s completely untrue now. And that’s what we’re showing in these slightly sexy photos.’‘

Clare Balding, a BBC sports presenter, thinks there are risks to this strategy.

‘If you go too far down the line of only people who are wildly sexy can do this, you are alienating girls who should be given a chance by suggesting that looks matter more than ability. They don’t. If they look fantastic and want to look sexy off the pitch, full power to them, but it should never interfere with the ethic of the sport. I would hate to think that the look was being promoted above ability.”

Perceptions of femininity have been a recurring preoccupation for the women of the Premiership in their quest to take the game to a wider audience.

Bristol Rovers produced a supposedly tasteful nude calendar to raise funds and interest. The players of Birmingham City have been made over by the Evening Post under the headline ‘Saturday night, Sunday morning’‘.

Quaintly, even clubs such as Arsenal and Chelsea have registered the name of their female team as Ladies rather than Women, as if to reinstate the delicacy that disappears on the football pitch.

‘The words we chose for the Look Book came out of branding work we did two years ago,’’ says Beverley Ward, marketing and communications manager for women’s football at the FA. ‘What are the qualities of women’s football? You have to position the sport differently from men’s football. The England women’s brand is about being glamorous.’‘

It is also about something else, which the FA is less keen to discuss.

‘There is the perception that all women who do sport are gay,’’ says Helen Donohoe of the Women’s Sport Foundation, ‘and different governing bodies have different levels of paranoia about that.”

The sport certainly has a sizeable gay heritage and relationships have been known to play a part in transfers. Sexual tensions in the dressing room have sometimes even led to whole clubs being torn apart.

The closest the FA and Ward will come to the subject is to praise Gurinder Chadha’s film Bend It Like Beckham as ‘the defining point of the women’s game in England in the past 10 years’‘.

Among its achievements is the fact that ‘it dealt with a lot of issues while showing that girls can play football — issues of sexuality in sport, of not necessarily being a tomboy, of there being no career in it,’’ says Ward.

As an illustration of what she means by issues of sexuality, she explains: ‘In the film, Keira Knightley’s mother thinks that Keira is going out with her best friend because she plays football and doesn’t wear pretty underwear.’‘

The FA says that ‘being feminine is about being proud to be a woman’’ and ‘the objective has always been to encourage participation in the sport’‘.

The problem is that distinguishing the women’s game from the men’s by making femininity and glamour its unique selling points suggests a nervousness about those qualities in the first place. It invokes the very thoughts it seems desperate to counter.

In fact, the FA’s best work in women’s football has been discreet. It has put in place a pathway that will take the most talented players from after-school girls’ teams through academies to the England senior squad.

Those who get there will find that the dress sense tightened up long before Blatter’s blue-sky thinking. Last March a new women’s strip was designed by kit sponsors Umbro, the shirts taken up and in, the baggy arms shrunk to cap sleeves, and the shorts made into a hipster fit.

But the most captivating picture in the Look Book is a tiny drop-in shot of the midfielder Katie Chapman, playing keepy-uppy in her training kit.

She’s on the pitch, her sleeves pulled down over her hands, head bowed in concentration at the ball at her feet. She looks fantastic — in a Brandi Chastain way. —

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