Tuesday, 10 November 2009

WATSONWORKSBLOG Number 5, 10 November 2009

And some little-known facts

In researching for my novel Fair Game: The Steps of Odessa (Spire Publishing, ISBN 1-897312-72-5), linking the tribulations of women’s soccer with human rights abuses in Ukraine, I was startled to discover that once upon a time in Britain women’s soccer was all the rage and drew prodigious crowds. There were even professional women players.
At Goodison Park, Everton, in 1921, Dick Kerr’s Ladies FC attracted a crowd of over 50,000. On 5 December in the same year – cataclysm: the Football Association (all male, of course) suddenly put women’s soccer to sleep for a generation, banning women from playing on FA-affiliated grounds; their explanation, that ‘the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged’.

Doldrum decades
In a Guardian article, ‘When women ruled the pitch’ (10 September 2009), Anna Kessel writes, ‘It is hard not to suspect this was, at least in part, a defensive move made by male officials who felt threatened by the success of their female counterparts’.
She goes on, ‘And so the women’s game was allowed to wither on the vine, missing out on half a century of development while the men’s leagues established even stronger roots’.
Though the ban was suspended in 1971, women’s soccer has continued to be one of the cinderellas of British sport, inadequately funded, largely neglected by the media; yet guess what? Statistics indicate that football is the premier sporting interest of women and girls.
Take a closer look at the sporting scene and you discover that women’s soccer has not only advanced in public interest, the FA has worked to remedy its ban and its neglect. As Anna Kessel points out, if the FA ‘is culpable for invoking that highly damaging ban in 1921, it has, since assuming responsibility for the women’s game in 1993, made significant inroads and investment into promoting it’.

The extent of women’s soccer in the UK is startling. A survey conducted in 2008 identified 1600 women’s teams in England, while girls’ teams numbered 4,800, a doubling of the number in the previous year. The FA Women’s Club Directory cites over 30 prime status clubs, from Arsenal to the Bristol Academy, from the Lincoln Ladies to the Millwall Lionesses.
In addition there are more than 30 Centres of Excellence operating in the major cities but also in towns such as Milton Keynes and Northampton, and areas such as north Yorkshire, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire and Somerset.
Predictably America leads the way in women’s soccer, at least in terms of cash and enterprise. Cyberspace is abuzz with footballing websites such as Soccer America (w.soccerameerica.com), Women’s Soccer World (womensoccer.com) and in the UK, When Saturday Comes (wsc.co.uk).

Quality on the pitch
Anyone who watched England’s impressive performance in the Euro final against Germany in September would confirm that women’s soccer is ready to compete, for skill, tactics, speed and commitment at the highest level.
True, the German team beat England convincingly, but they are a squad – and have been for many years – that have proved pretty well invincible, characterised in their play by vision, pace and finishing power that matches anything to be seen in the men’s game. However, when it comes to remuneration, an England player earns in a year what an average male player in the football league earns in a week.
The England women’s team, under their manager Hope Powell, goes from strength to strength, but back in the sticks clubs face penury and in some cases – like Bristol City and Fulham Ladies – closure.

Gender fixation
The obstacles to the progress of women’s soccer are as much cultural as financial, each tending to undermine the other. By tradition, football has been regarded as a sport for men. Hockey and lacrosse are still the sports of choice for girls in secondary education.
The editor of a publishing firm I submitted Fair Game to was of the opinion that, surely, if the subject was football, the book should be aimed at boy readers; thus casting a woman footballer as the key protagonist of the story was simply to have mixed my genders if not my metaphors. This response to a work of fiction matched stereotypical thinking about women’s soccer in the real world.
In Fair Game Natasha’s aspirations to play soccer for her country are frustrated not by lack of ability or determination, but by factors beyond her control, and chiefly off the pitch.
Of course gender remains a crucial feature in the narrative but aligned with it is the sense that football mirrors and encompasses the struggles of life itself, the challenges, the disappointments, the joy, the let-downs, not to mention the bruises, the sprained ankles and the slagging off, in reality as much a part of the women’s game as of the men’s.

The price of free speech
The decision to set the novel in Ukraine was influenced by that country’s human rights record: it was ranked in 2004 by Reporters Without Borders as second only to Columbia as the most dangerous country for journalists, notorious for the beatings up in stairwells of editors, photographers and reporters; and the murder in 2000 of Georgi Gongadze, an online correspondent whose delving into state corruption was leading him to the heart of government.
Ukraine’s is an amazing history – occupied by foreign invaders over centuries, subject to Stalinist tyranny during the 1930s only to be savagely overrun by the Nazi war machine during the 2nd World War.
It is a country ‘of which we know little’ but it deserves better in its struggle to emerge from the shadow of Soviet rule and Iron Curtain mentality.

Search for identity
Among the key tasks of fiction writers is the shaping of the identities of their characters within the contexts that surround them. Those contexts too may be in search of identity. As a nation, Ukraine has been described as a ‘land without borders’, in the post-Soviet era, a country struggling to define itself.
Yet one of Ukraine’s most positive identifiers is its record as a footballing nation, typified by Shakhtar Donetsk or, most famously, Dynamo Kyiv. Here again, however, tragedy is likely to be the spectre in the wings. Dynamo’s website records a tournament which took place in the city during the German occupation.
Professional teams from Hungary and Germany were ferried in by the Nazis with a view to demonstrating that they were as superior with the football as with the gun. Probably believing that for once they were being granted an even playing field, Dynamo beat their German opposition.
They were not to be feted or forgiven: the winning side was arrested and duly despatched to a concentration camp where several were executed.
Of course in the 21st century Natasha and the Under 19s Ukraine women’s squad do not have to face that kind of horror; but the obstacles to achieving fair play as contrasted with the cynicism and malice of fair game, are real and formidable. They demand great resolution, courage and – yes, teamwork, to overcome them. Women footballers in Britain might well say Amen to that.

Recommended reading
Beheaded: The Killing of a Journalist by J.V. Koshiw (Artemia Press, 2003). The story of the life and death of Georgi Gongadze in 2000 and of the so-termed Melnychenko Tapes.
The Damned United by David Peace (Faber, 2006), featuring the stormy reign of Brian Clough during his 45 days as manager of Leeds United. A humdinger of a novel.