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I cheered! I cried! Nothing ‘inferior’ about this women’s World Cup

By Gabrielle Jackson

The thrilling semi-final between England and Japan had everything: amazing athletes, excitement, controversy, joy and devastation. The only reason the public don’t watch women’s sport is because television doesn’t back it

Laura Bassett of England is dejected after the FIFA Women’s World Cup Semi Final match between Japan and England
‘There is a pit in my stomach that physically hurts for Laura Bassett but she became a hero of mine today.’ Photograph: Kevin C Cox/Getty Images
I’m a football convert! The 2015 women’s World Cup has achieved what nearly nine years living in England could not: an interest in “the world game”. It may be unoriginal, since millions of people around the world seem to have converted with me over the past four weeks, but what a thrill it’s been.

In the early rounds of the World Cup, the Australian columnist and professional contrarian Rita Panahi revealed she “couldn’t care less about women’s sport” because, she claimed, it was an “inferior product”.

How foolish she ought to feel today!

The semi-final between England and Japan had everything – excitement (England’s near-miss in the first minute of the match, and then three close attempts within minutes in the second half), controversy (both teams scoring from penalties that the experts quickly determined were dubious decisions), moments of joy (England successfully converted a penalty! Perhaps they can give their compatriot men some tips?) and, finally, absolute devastation (can there be any worse way to lose a game than an own goal scored in the 92nd minute?).

I have to confess: I cried when it was all over. I choked up on the penalties, I roared when England scored, I groaned when Japan did and I dropped my head into my hands at the own goal. There is a pit in my stomach that physically hurts for Laura Bassett but she became a hero of mine today and will remain one for a long time.

This World Cup has been a ratings winner around the world: 1.6 million people tuned in to watch the England v Canada quarter final, which was watched in the stadium by more than 54,000 fans. The England v Japan match report is the most popular story on our website as I write this. So why has a game that’s so enjoyable to watch gone under the radar for so long?

There is really only one reason the public doesn’t follow women’s sport in the same way they follow men’s – there is no way to follow it. Many women’s sports have little to no public profile and that was the same with women’s football until now. Where are the games? Who are the players?
People can argue all they like about whether female tennis players should earn as much as their male counterparts but there is little doubt that at certain times in tennis history, the women’s game was more interesting to watch than the men’s – think back to when Steffi Graf and Monica Seles were playing, or when Mary Pierce had her own travelling fan club and a toy company produced a doll in Gabriela Sabatini’s likeness. Women’s tennis is popular, as are its highly paid women. Why? Because their matches are televised, they have public profiles and a large fan base –exactly what this World Cup has finally delivered to women’s football, a game about 29 million women and girls now play.

So why isn’t women’s football and other women’s sport more widely aired on television? I think it’s largely because the men who schedule the programs and buy the rights aren’t interested in the women’s game. They are probably the same men who don’t read books by female authors. There’s a term for it: sexism.

It makes no sense to claim it’s not as financially viable as men’s sport because people don’t watch it. They don’t watch it because they don’t know about it. The World Cup has proved there are the numbers to make televised women’s sport a success. It has also proved that women are amazing athletes.

As Sam Haddad points out, we know playing sport is good for us and that it makes us happy and healthy. We also know girls take part at lower rates than boys. But now young girls around the world have role models – they have incredibly skilled and able female football heroes to look up to. It’s time to follow up with the money needed to build a profile for the game it clearly deserves.

The skill on display in the semi-final between Japan and England was nothing short of inspiring. And, if the reactions of the blokes around me while I watched are anything to go by, it’s not inspiring just to women.

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