Compare & Contrast Between The Nations League & The Women’s World Cup

Nations League Final Matches Round-Up

There were no impromptu street parties in London last night, and the fountains of Trafalgar Square, to the best of our knowledge, remained unmolested. We will never know whether this would have been the case had England found a way past the Netherlands and Portugal in the final stages of the Nations League, but results last week rendered that all irrelevant anyway. The outcome of it all is that England’s involvement in these finals feels like something of a curate’s egg. On the one hand, individual errors against the Netherlands in the semi-final proved very costly and the failure to break down a hard-working but limited Switzerland team in the play-off match didn’t hint at a team capable of becoming European or world champions any time soon.

On the other, though, England won a second successive penalty shoot-out – words that few would have believed, three years ago, that they’d hear in this lifetime – and they were unbeaten against both teams in ninety minutes, if that counts for anything. And yesterday afternoon against Switzerland they were pretty were pretty much completely dominant and held at bay by the goalkeeping of Jan Sommer and the wayward finishing of Raheem Sterling, for whom this was one of those days when nothing was ever going to come off. It’s the first time that England have won the final match of a tournament in which they’ve been involved since 1980, when they won a final dead rubber match Spain after having already lost their first two matches, and the first time they’ve finished third in any tournament since the 1968 European Championships. These consolations may be slight, but they’re better than nothing.

Such was the confidence of the England team that, when the penalty shootout came forth, not only did they score all of their first five kicks (something that they also managed against Germany in the 1996 European Championship semi-final, though this tends to be overlooked by a historical narrative that can only see itself through a binary prism of “success” and “failure”), but they also allowed goalkeeper Jordan Pickford to step up and score their sixth before leaping acrobatically to his right to keep out and take England to… bronze. The number of chances spurned might have been considered a bad omen for the penalty kicks to come, but this turned out not to be the case. As such, if England are to take anything positive from the last few days, it should probably be that a second successive competitive shootout win leads the entire nation a little further away from a phobia over this inevitable part of the world of international football that had started to become a little self-perpetuating.

In the evening, meanwhile, Portugal completed a clean sweep of European national team competitions with a one-nil win against the Netherlands in Porto. On the evening, the better side won. Portugal demonstrated that they are not as reliant on their captain as the previous week’s win against Switzerland might have suggested and were solid and compact enough defensively to limit the Dutch team to no more than a couple of half-decent goal-scoring opportunities. For all of this, though, it was not a match that will live particularly log in anybody’s memory. There was a Mexican wave before half-time – this is, of course, now the recognised international standard for whether a match has been “any good” or not – and Portugal’s defence was tight enough to not allow the Netherlands any serious threat after Valencia’s Gonçalo Guedes gave them the lead fifteen minutes into the second half.

Compare & Contrast

What was a little strange, however, was dipping a toe back into the men’s game after having watched five consecutive matches from the Women’s World Cup over the previous forty-eight hours. Comparing one with the other may be considered akin to running blindfolded down a cul-de-sac, especially if one is to be derogatory about one or the other, but it should be possible to do so in good faith, so here’s how these last few days have felt to me, in a variety of different ways (and bear in mind that there is no insinuation on my part here, merely statements of perception):

  • The men’s games felt crowded on the standard international sized pitch after having watched several women’s matches. This is presumably at least partly because male players are physically larger than their female counterparts, but it also feels as though men’s teams close down opponents in possession more quickly.
  • The men’s game is definitely quicker. There is, unsurprisingly, a greater emphasis on strength and speed in men’s football than in the women’s game. Build-ups can be equally ponderous across both the men’s and women’s games, but when men’s teams are passing the ball around amongst themselves, it can feel a bit like watching someone play pinball after the more relaxed pace of the women’s game.
  • Men’s teams kick the ball harder. Okay, okay, I know what you’re thinking, here. This is somewhere between obvious and irrelevant, right? Well, true to a point, but it does make an aesthetic difference to the flow of a game. When a male player shoots, even if one suspects that they’re trying to “place” the ball, there remains a tendency to emphasise putting pace on the ball. The best goals of the Women’s World Cup so far have been notable for their placement rather than their power.
  • Women’s matches have contained less dissent towards officials. Decisions have been made that have been every bit as contentious as anything that we could expect in a men’s match, yet the sight of angry players surrounding the referee, faces contorted with the rage that can only come when a free-kick is given against you, has been mercifully thin on the ground at the Women’s World Cup.
  • Ross Barkley’s brace against the Netherlands last week notwithstanding, there seem to remain fewer catastrophic and completely unforced errors in the men’s game. Several times over the first few days of the Women’s World Cup, goals have been scored as a direct result of a defender needlessly passing the ball straight to the opposition when under no pressure to do so whatsoever. For those of us who love a dash of unexpected chaos in our football, this is by no means a bad thing.
  • When women foul, they foul. There have been fewer sly attempts to deceive referees and more thoroughly enjoyable tackles that, if seen in the men’s game, would probably be described as “agricultural.” The referees have given the impression of being more lenient, in terms of the doling out of cards for fouls.

Regardless of such arguments, the women’s team won the ratings battle yesterday afternoon, with a little over 6m people tuning in to watch that whilst only just over 1m watched the Nations League match. This isn’t a like for like comparison, of course – the men’s match was on Sky and was ultimately a bronze medal match in a tournament that some considered an irrelevance, whilst the women’s match was England vs Scotland in a World Cup finals – but it certainly suggests that the idea that “no-one is interested in women’s football” is wide of the mark, especially when we factor in that only 2.6m people tuned in for the (presumably more meaningful than the Switzerland match) men’s match against the Netherlands last week.

It’s also worth pausing to consider why the women’s game has developed in the way that it has. In England, it was banned for a full half-century, whilst the Women’s Super League didn’t turn fully professional until last year and sponsorship and commercial revenues remain a tiny fraction of those coming to the men’s game. Small wonder, then, that women’s football has lagged behind the men’s game in many respects over the years. It takes considerable time and money to bring through the very best professional sportspeople, and the women’s game has been trying to progress with one arm tied behind its back for as long as anybody can remember. But the quality has improved and will continue to do so, for so long as we support it.

Ultimately, though, women’s football and men’s football feel and play like exactly what they are – different arms of the same sport. Suggestions that one is somehow “better” or “worse” than the other are probably rooted in familiarity, if we’re going to be generous and not presume that they’re rooted in sexism or outright misogyny (spoiler alert: some of them, possibly more than some, definitely are). It’s perfectly possible to have a preference towards one set of traits over another, but the line frequently crossed by detractors of the women’s game is that their preferred version of the game is somehow “superior” to the other. Quite why people get so angry about this remains, however, something of a mystery. There is no reason whatsoever why women’s football and men’s football can’t peacefully co-exist. One isn’t an “inferior” form of the other.