Football Across The Gender Divide

WOLFSBURG, GERMANY - JULY 03: Marta (L) of Brazil and Guro Knutsen Mienna (R) of Norway battle for the ball during the FIFA Women's World Cup 2011 Group D match between Brazil and Norway at Wolfsburg Arena on July 3, 2011 in Wolfsburg, Germany. (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)

The Women's World Cup has been great entertainment so far. But what would co-ed football look like, and what would it mean for a sport that remains as traditional in its attitudes as the day it was born.

I think it's fair to say that the Women's World Cup has been going pretty well so far: attendances have been good; the football has been at least as thrilling as the male equivalent; and the number of time-added-on-for-broken-nails jokes has been mercifully low. Off the field, Germany has taken the tournament to heart to such an extent that 4.5 million Panini stickers sold out before the first game, while on the pitch the Japanese have entertained, Marta has bewitched, and England have been so damn English about everything that it's been curiously comforting.

But the tournament -- while excellent and fully deserving of everybody's attention and support -- brings with it one hypothetical question; a question that I dismissed out of hand the first time anyone suggested it, only to return to it, again and again, each time more curious than the last: why, at the highest level and all levels beneath, don't men and women play football together?

Thought-experiment time: how might such a game look? Let's think about the rules first of all. If we're going to attempt to create a truly equal sport, then it would make sense to split the outfield players evenly: five women, five men. Goalkeeper can be either, but then the substitute goalkeeper must be the other. While we're there, the subs bench will need to be bigger, if we're to attempt to maintain the balance throughout the changes: let's expand it to nine, four of each sex, and make substitutions gender-specific. Finally, whatever gender the manager is, the assistant must be the other. There we are. To adopt a phrase from the United States of Abbreviations: fully co-ed football.

What I don't want to do here is to get into a tedious debate about how women lack spatial awareness and strength and speed and how their tendency to suddenly have babies means that they should stick to knitting. This is not to say that there aren't differences between male and female sportspeople; women, on average, do tend to be shorter, lighter, less muscular, and so on. But were these differences to be understood not as a stumbling block but as a fait accompli -- this is how football is because this is how life is, get on with it -- then the objections (whether legitimate, deluded or misogynist) lose their force. If the difference between men and women is something that the game has to deal with, then it's something the game has to deal with.

(Trite aside: A quick glance at any large spread of football players will tell you that there's is no such thing as a body shape that can't find a way of playing football at the very highest level; why should having breasts be any different? Insert your own Andy Reid joke here.)

The most likely general objection, it seems to me, would be that this would somehow diminish the quality of football as a whole; that by forcing every team to be co-ed, the overall standard would drop. This, I think, is an appeal that rests on a false assumption: that football is always and should always be moving forward. A parallel might be drawn with the Whiggish conception of history, which holds that the world, in general, continues to get better as time passes, marching towards an apogee of enlightenment (which coincidentally looks just like wherever the Whig happens to live, generally Berkshire). By this reckoning, football, by virtue of constant development, improves year on year in a qualitative way. Today is better than yesterday; tomorrow will be beautiful.

This is a mistake; it is a fundamental (albeit tempting) misunderstanding of the nature of football. What might appear to be progress towards perfection is, in fact, a race without end or ultimate prize, in which the only thing that matters is staying ahead of everyone else; like a cycling road race consisting only of perpetual intermediate stages. Take tactics as an example. While it is tempting to understand the inversion of the pyramid as a long march from chaos to order, it was not a coherent project for the betterment of football, but the consequence of clever men with an obsessive focus on one question and one question only: How can I win? Wherever football goes, it goes seeking silver, not self-realisation. This is not a spiritual journey.

So Barcelona play the way they do because it maximises their chances of victory; were it to fail, and fail consistently, they would change. Arsene Wenger introduced the mutually co-dependent principles of ‘more pasta' and ‘less beer' to the Arsenal system not in the belief that it would lead to ‘better' football, but because it would help his team win. And he was right, and so everybody copied it, and what appears to be progress is in fact only the restoration of equilibrium. Backward steps are only rejected if they've been proven to fail and nobody can see how they might succeed again; indeed, sometimes retro-tactics do work, as Otto Rehhagel's Greeks would tell you. Fundamentally, if Wenger discovered that the creative application of alcoholism would make him 3.7% more likely to lift a trophy, he'd have Emmanuel Frimpong on the Tennent's Super quicker than you could say "isotonic rehydration agents are for sissies".

This highlights the difference: sports science has an ultimate goal, which is the maximisation of human physical efficiency; football doesn't, and is simply a series of competitive internal squabbles. Sports science muddies the picture, however, and provides football with a false upward curve, which is why any relevant and worthwhile attempt at assessing teams across time has to take into account not their qualities in abstract, pitted against one another, but their achievements within their own context; against their rivals and amongst their peers. While today's Stoke, pumped up on protein shakes and ProZoned to the eyeballs, would probably crush the great Santos side of the 1960s, it would be wrong -- and frankly offensive -- to suggest that Tony Pulis's merry men were a better team than Pelé and friends. Success, like progress, is always relative.

But there is one way to nudge the game in a direction nominally labelled better: change the rules. The most obvious example is the perpetual tweaking of the offside rule - first numbers reduced, then principles liberalised, all in the pursuit of more goals - but the not-too-distant past has included the outlawing of the backpass, to much despair in Liverpool, and the golden and silver goals, to much despair throughout the universe. Importantly, these are attempts to move the game forward made by custodians for the benefit of the fans (or more likely the sponsors), not its practitioners, for whom such tweaks are simply new variables to be considered in the pursuit of silverware. As long as the rules are the same for everyone, and don't threaten the fundamental identity of football, they are relatively irrelevant.

And they are irrelevant because the joy of football does not come from the rules but from the competition. In the smallest sense -- the individual match -- the joy comes either in seeing the team you support triumph over one that you don't, or in seeing a good game; in a larger, season-long sense, it's seeing your team win trophies or exceed expectations, or in seeing teams compete; in a still-larger, pan-season sense, it's about dynasties, about the rise and fall of powers, about the ebb and flow of teams, squads, players and managers. While the achievements in themselves may be contingent, in a direct sense, on whether you're allowed to pass back to the ‘keeper or not, the joy (and hence the point) is not contingent on whether offside means three people, or two, or daylight, nor whether extra-time ends when a goal is scored. And it is not contingent on whether the protagonists are all male.

So what might be the benefit of co-ed football, from an external point of view? After all, on-field, teams would find ways of working together and adjusting their game, and as before success will come to those teams who are innovative, lucky and rich. This much is predictable. More interesting might be the off-field effects; while speculative, what follows are some thoughts on how the sudden introduction of sexual equality to football might affect everything outside the whitewashed lines.

The most striking and instant change would be the sudden elevation of a large number of women to positions more or less equivalent to today's male footballers: money; fame; tabloid misrepresentation; dressing room power; and all the rest. What the effect on the sexual politics at the top of football might be is not clear, but I don't think it's unfair to suggest that the barely suppressed misogyny that, if we're being charitable, lurks on the edges of top-level football would be at least challenged. It's a lot harder to hold women in contempt, as plenty of footballers appear to do, if your professional success is contingent on working alongside them, and you'd hope the same principle would extend to the knuckle-dragging elements of the fans. At the very least, Marlon King might find it harder to get work.

Incidentally, I don't necessarily mean to blame male footballers or footballs fans as such; the vexed sexual politics of football are, of course, consequences of broader social problems. British society -- and indeed the whole world -- is still constrained by institutionalised inequality and riddled with sexism, overt and implied. And of course, it should always be remembered that those footballers that are perfectly reasonable human beings simply don't get any attention: "Footballers Don't Spit Roast Whore" won't sell many papers, after all. But any country in which ‘footballer's wife' is an aspiration rather than a simple description is a country in need of a good hard slap, and the Keysandgraygate kerfuffle showed that sexism was not only rife but largely unchallenged. (Though, by the by, the football media remains the only industry in which I can recall two well-known figures actually being dismissed simply for such idiocy. Rupert Murdoch: bang in the front of the feminist vanguard.)

Of course, there remains the possibility that the sexual iniquities perpetrated by the football patriarchy would simply be mirrored; that Soccer AM would start parading Soccerhunks; that Sky Sports News would acquire blond heartthrobs called Colin, or Peter; and Hello! would be able to boost its circulation with tales of gold-digging HABs. (Or BAHs, maybe. BAHs is better.) Maybe one day, FIFA president Josephine Splatter might suggest that the boys wear tighter shirts, though whether that would be possible - Salomon Kalou, how do you breathe? - is debatable. This would be an equality of sorts; hilarious and disappointing. But there would, I suspect, be a wider importance, one of great benefit to the game as a whole.

Football, though it pretends to be the people's game, is not; women are permitted to watch and consume, and invited to spend money along with the men, but when they want to play they are forced to do so on their own, in underfunded leagues, out of sight of the real business of proper football. While things are better than they were, and women are better represented in both the press box and the stands, they remain obstinately and carefully excluded from the heart of the game, both administratively and of course on the field. By altering this, football could fundamentally alter the nature of the relationship between the game and half the world. Young girls would be inspired by recognisable idols who are not confined to the edges but who are as crucial and as central to the success of their club as the men. I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that it would galvanise a whole generation of girls in a way that football can never hope to do otherwise; indeed, I think it would be contrary to suggest otherwise.

Finally, I want to emphasise that none of the above is intended to deride the women's game. But the only reason football is divided by sex is because it comes from a time when everything was divided by sex; and the only reason it stays that way is because everything is still divided by sex, albeit less formally. It is probably too much to expect that football go where society hasn't, or at least hasn't yet, but let's at least stop pretending to ourselves that women are kept in the stands, or in their own competitions, for the good of the sport. Football is a resilient thing, and if the abolition of hacking and the admission of Frenchmen couldn't kill it, there's no reason letting the lasses play should.

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