The actions of the Football Association within women’s football since the advent of the Super League system could bloom into real issues as a result of coronavirus. But there are also glimpses of opportunity for the women’s game…
The publication of the FifPro report this week on the impact that Covid-19 could have on the global women’s game set alarm bells ringing. Despite the progress that has been made to move the game into the mainstream, all of that could be reversed as a result of the chaos the football world is undergoing. Whilst the report takes a global view on the situation, in England the worries expressed are being taken just as seriously.
Discontent with the Football Association has been growing throughout the past few weeks over the cancellation of the season for the Women’s National League and below. This decision has been made in line with the men’s game and makes sense given the large backlog of games that had already built up due to poor winter weather and sub-standard pitches. Yet clubs like Barnsley claim that the FA only paid lip-service to consulting those actually playing in the leagues. They suggest they went over their heads to make the decision to end the season and expunge the results. With Barnsley top of the National League North with eight games left to play, it is easy to see their frustration in having promotions and relegations cancelled.
Another worry within the women’s game is that the financial impact of coronavirus within clubs will be passed onto women’s teams. Faced with unprecedented losses, clubs will look to slim down their budgets with little priority being given to a women’s team that might have had money poured into it in more buoyant times. It’s a pattern that has been played out when men’s teams have been relegated from the Premier League.
Few, if any, women’s clubs are profitable. Liverpool’s women’s accounts showed losses of hundreds of thousands of pounds from last year, and that is from a team who are accused of underspending. Yet it would be wrong to say that this is the reason those teams could be cut. Men’s clubs often make much higher losses and football, like many other businesses, often requires significant investment before money can be made. The reason would be that the women’s teams are undervalued and expendable.
The seeds of both these issues have been sown by a common feeling that the Football Association tends to have opaque motives when it comes to the handling of smaller women’s clubs. The application process clubs have to go through to get licenses that will admit them to the upper echelons of women’s league football means that promotion and relegation are regularly decided by the FA rather than results anyway. The fact that this process can seem to favour teams associated with men’s clubs has led to more than a few raised eyebrows in the past. It is understandable for smaller clubs sitting at the top of tables to see the cancellation of their seasons as just another way for the FA to manipulate the women’s league system into something it thinks is more palatable to the bigger commercial interests in football.
But that manipulation leads into the issue whereby women’s teams are host to the fortunes of the men’s teams they are associated with. Whilst independent and smaller women’s teams are undoubtedly under enormous financial strain too, if these clubs had been better supported by the FA in the past, their destiny would at least be in their own hands. Instead the worry for many of those at the top is that they will be cut adrift with no choice but to accept the decision made by the men’s team.
There does not need to be all doom and gloom surrounding the women’s game though, thanks in part to one plan about the restarting of the football season. Whilst the dates of it seem incredibly optimistic and consequently unlikely, following it to its logical conclusion offers a chink of light.
The proposal suggests playing the remaining games at a neutral venue such as St George’s Park, restarting on the weekend of the 6th-7th June. This is a week before the proposed start date of the Premier League on the 13th-14th June, opening up the potential that the Women’s Super League would be the first matches broadcast to a football starved nation.
The women’s game lends itself much more realistically to the behind closed doors approach currently being touted by leagues all over the world. Teams are more used to playing in front of minimal crowds, meaning that the loss of atmosphere will have a smaller impact. The league’s smaller fan base also minimises the risk of large groups of supporters gathering to watch their teams, a problem which arose when men’s games went behind closed doors before their cancellation. The entourage associated with women’s teams are also smaller meaning there would be fewer people required to isolate in order to get the games played.
It is a separate – and incredibly important – issue about whether this kind of approach is in any way viable in either the women’s or the men’s game. Both the issues of having to constantly test everyone involved and the willingness of players to isolate themselves away from their families seem like challenges which might be insurmountable.
Yet if it was possible to pull it off, it would give the women’s game a unique opportunity to stand in the limelight. One that might show clubs why it is worth continuing to financially support their women’s teams, and one that might prevent the bottom falling out of the women’s game.
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