For all of the nuances, subtleties and hidden tricks of the English language, sometimes the words just don’t quite exist. “Cruel” doesn’t quite seem sufficient for that which followers of the England Women’s Team experienced in the small hours of this morning in Vancouver, and still less does “unfair.” But even if English supporters can mangle their definitions enough to make those words fit, we surely need a new word to describe the experience of Laura Bassett, whose stoppage time intervention in the semi-final match against Japan last night played out in front of millions of television viewers as if all of an individual’s private nightmares had suddenly come to life and chosen to manifest themselves in front of a live television audience.
It would require a heart of stone not to have empathy for the experience of Laura Bassett last night and the reaction to goal has been, with a few depressingly predictable exceptions, extremely sympathetic. The player herself might be able to take solace from her excellent performances throughout the tournament and from being a part of a team that exceeded all pre-tournament expectations. Having got through the group stages of the competition, England defeated a well established nation in the form of Norway and the host nation, Canada, on their own turf before pushing the current holders of the tournament as far as they could be pushed. Disappointment at losing to a freak own goal is a natural, understandable reaction, but this should be tempered with pride in a series of performances that pushed women’s football into the spotlight in England in way that has never happened before.
Bassett’s moment of supreme misfortune came at the end of another accomplished English performance in a match that was otherwise punctuated by two questionable penalty decisions. Apart from a short spell at the start of the second half, England looked the stronger of the two teams throughout much of the match. They hit the crossbar twice – although on the second occasion the extent to which this was intended was questionable, to say the least – and managed to create a host of other chances that might on another day have swung the match decisively in their favour. Japan’s technical excellence has been obvious throughout the tournament, but they frequently ceded ground to a high tempo performance which demonstrated coach Mark Sampson’s flair for adapting his team to suit its circumstances.
It is to be hoped that these relative successes will not be considered flashes in the pan, and that they can be effectively built upon by the Football Association. There is an excellent opportunity for this to happen at the start of August when the Women’s FA Cup final is played at Wembley between Chelsea and Notts County. The opportunity to push this fixture is something that doesn’t appear to have been forgotten by the FA, and its canny timing, sandwiched between the end of the World Cup and the start of the new men’s season, should ensure a healthy attendance. On top of this, live television coverage on BBC One should ensure a higher profile than the fixture ordinarily receives. The key trick for all concerned, however, is to make women’s football more of part of the mainstream bread and butter of the football calendar than it currently is, rather than an occasional series of showcase events.
Perhaps the media will take note of the viewing figures for these matches. It should do, certainly. A television audience of almost two and a half million people tuning in for a match kicking off at midnight on a midweek evening is a remarkable number, and if it were to turn out that a lasting legacy of England’s performance at this tournament was am ongoing spike in interest in the women’s game here, then those players may well take satisfaction from a job well done. A similar case might be made, should it turn out that England’s performance has had a positive effect on the number of young women taking the game up from an early age. At the time of writing we can’t say for certain that this will be the case, but we can certainly say with confidence now that young women entering the game for the first time have plenty of female inspiration from which they can take their cues.
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