Former World Cup star who collapsed during training on Tuesday dies in hospital at the age of 34.
|The players of World Cup winning side Japan received big bonuses after success in Germany [GALLO/GETTY]|
Women’s football is refreshingly free of the hysterics which blight the men’s game and must not allow itself to be contaminated by success, says UEFA’s first female executive committee member.
Karen Espelund said the recent success of the women’s World Cup won by Japan in Germany, with impressive television ratings, dramatic matches and sold-out stadiums, had also brought worrying signs that the sport was losing its sense of fair play.
Three players, all from North Korea, failed doping tests, there were protests that Equatorial Guinea had fielded a male player during the African qualifying competition while Brazil were widely regarded as an exception to the no gamesmanship approach.
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) said at one stage it would investigate the protests against Equatorial Guinea, who qualified for the World Cup, but no result was ever announced.
“In one way, this shows women’s football is getting attractive in the sense that it’s important to win, to be among the best,” said Espelund, who was invited on the UEFA executive committee and took up her place last month.
“On the other hand, it’s a terribly sad development and we need to stop it before it goes further.”
“The atmosphere on the women’s side is different, the teams were staying in the same hotel, you can’t imagine that in the men’s game”
UEFA exec Karen Espelund
But Espelund, general secretary of the Norwegian federation for 10 years, said it was still a far cry from the men’s game.
“The atmosphere on the women’s side is different, the teams were staying in the same hotel, you can’t imagine that in the men’s game.
“I think the women should avoid learning from the men, keep it as it is, respecting fair play, respecting opponents.
“It is easy to read the female game as a referee because they will not go for a throw-in which is not theirs and they respect the referee.
“There’s more at stake in the men’s game, there’s more money in the game. The women so far play for pride and honour but not much for money, this might be one of the reasons you see the different attitudes.”
However, the game is changing and the increased interest has brought more money to the sport.
Japan’s all-conquering women’s soccer team received cash bonuses of $84,000 per player for their astonishing World Cup victory.
The JFA raised the bonus by $60,000 after they defied odds to win the tournament in Germany, beating the hosts before knocking out Sweden and overcoming the mighty United States on penalties in a nail-biting Frankfurt final.
Despite the success of the World Cup and the continued growth at grass roots level, women’s football continues to struggle to attract sponsors and television air time. Espelund said there was no easy solution.
“We are in a situation where male football is really strong and nobody wants to weaken that position but how do you manage to get more sponsors into women’s football?”
“We need clubs to find sponsors to do it with the heart, who want girls to have the possibility to perform on a national level.”
She added the sport continued to suffer from constant comparisons with the men’s game.
“You do notice the difference, but it is always commented on and this is a challenge because I don’t know why, it’s the only sport which is always being compared to the men’s performances.
“It doesn’t happen with athletics, swimming, not with handball. This is a challenge for football, how to respect the quality of the game itself.
|Espelund knows women’s football has many challenges to overcome [GALLO/GETTY]|
“The men’s game is extremely fast now and the pitch is getting smaller and smaller, women’s football can never be that quick.
“But how do we break this imagination in people’s minds, the comparisons. I wish I knew the answer, I don’t know yet, but I think the World Cup has set the standard.”
Although this represents a dilemma, Espelund said her priority would be the grass-roots game.
Women’s football has come a long way from the days when she was a teenager, playing football in the street with boys because there were no girls teams and was told by a male teacher: “What do you think your knees will look like when you grow up?”
But there was still a long way to go, she said.
“Parts of Europe have this cultural situation which has to be changed and it’s a fact in Europe that not every girl has a playing opportunity in her neighbourhood.
“To me that’s the most important part, that the grass-roots possibilities are there and every girl who wants to play can play.”