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There are More Important Things than National Elections
Hamish Alcorn is a Director of Webdiary, and is the inspirational person who kept Webdiary going from late 2005 to mid 2006. He has been a source of great strength and comfort to all moderators over the past two years. Hamish's blog is here; this is his first piece for Webdiary this year (and about time too....). Great to see you in print again, Hamish.
Can anyone remember the hoopla about the Soccer World Cup? How it palpably gripped the imagination of our country that we were playing the international game at such an elite level? If the growth of soccer in Australia since is any indication it certainly had an impact. Soccer is even trendy in some circles. But then people seem all but unaware that the Women's World Cup is now on, that the Matildas are in it, and that they are brilliant.
Ok, it's a shame, and of course this is just the age old superiority of male physical sport, real or imagined. Inherent sexism in our society is an important reason to contemplate, perhaps, the extraordinary gap between national enthusiasm for the Socceroos and the Matildas, as is the spectacle of physicality. But it's not just like the gap between male and female tennis or swimming. It's a gaping chasm, and surely the marketing of the Matildas and the Women's World Cup for that matter, simply has to be partly to blame.
Here's a brief of who they are. The Matildas are fifteenth in the World, on a very international stage. 140 countries set out to qualify for Women's World Cup China 2007, and 16 got in. Let's recall that the Socceroos qualified for a finals of 32, so the Matildas are already ahead there. And by defeating Ghana 4:1 last week, and the drawing 1:1 with Norway, the Brazil of women's soccer, on Friday night, the Matildas are in with a fair speculator's chance of getting into the quarter finals, further than any Australian soccer team has got before. To do that they need a draw or a win against Canada, on Wednesday night. It's on SBS.
There is no real excuse for our country not getting behind these girls even for the most superficial reasons. This post is a plug, and some other possible reasons.
The official World ranking in women's football looks very different to the men's. The most coherent key to making sense of the required adjustment is that the women's ranking has a strong reflection of which countries have the most liberated women, by which I mean the extent to which women can choose their own lifeways. Apart from Brazil at number 8, there are no Latin American countries in the top 20, the USA and Norway battle for Number 1 (29th and 49th respectively in the men's), and Australia, an impressive enough 42nd in the men's, is 15th. Needless to say the Middle East doesn't get a look into the top 50 in women's soccer, though in the men's Israel, Egypt and Iran are all ahead of us.
There's a notable exception in my view, and that is North Korea, who recently knocked the Matildas out of their Olympic qualifiers and are certainly one of the favourites to win the Cup. Here's to caricatures and obscene generalisations, because I want to paint this picture properly. They look like a Stalinist machine. They have short hair, no femininity, very little expression of emotion, and are utterly, utterly brilliant. They are, if you like, Sparta, and as we know definitively from the movie 300, Sparta might be distasteful, but it can certainly mount a challenge in sheer effectiveness. The Matildas will not meet the North Koreans until the semi-finals at the earliest, if they get that far.
So perhaps this is a reason why women's soccer is not as significant a world event. It is not as universally a contest between populations (though you'd have to say it is still more so than any other team sport), as it is to a palpable extent layered by the extent to which the populations have women liberated enough to pursue soccer if they feel like it. Or perhaps this makes it a profoundly more important contest.
Like so many sports soccer began as a men's pursuit. But unlike many team sports in particular, soccer was and is very accessible. It's the same reason, if you like, why it's popular with juniors and why there's over-55 leagues that are still brilliant to watch.
Now I know it's Australians mostly who might read this, and I don't want to get into the stuff between different football codes in this country, all of which I respect and love to watch, but there are other reasons why soccer will not stop growing in popularity. There is the bodies and athleticism that we all love, there are some amazing skills and feats of strength and endurance, but more importantly there is that quality of an infinite world of possibility emerging from a simple set of rules, like chess as compared to backgammon, or bridge to 500. This quality does not really explain the growth of soccer around the world, but it explains its stickability, as cultures of meaning and analysis, along with an apparently infinite tapestry of metaphor for life, evolve around the game. Yes it's true of every sport to some extent, and as a fan I've got to avoid raving on about this, but there is a whole other exponent of possibilities in a soccer game. Expertly analyse a basketball game, cricket game, AFL game, rugby game. Sure there's plenty to say. But there is no comparison to the vistas of meaning available to the interested in a soccer game, at any level, whether playing or watching.
To explain the actual growth of soccer however, especially its tertiary stage of growth now in America, Australia and Asia, it's impossible not to refer to the accessibility of the sport to women. In both the USA and Australia the massive growth at junior level is girl-led to an enormous extent.
Soccer is not just accessible in that anyone can play at some level. That's true enough, but soccer's quality is accessible, to an enormous extent compared to other sports. In itself, physicality is largely taken out of the equation. Height and strength can both be useful in some positions and situations but as many a short, speedy player can attest, it is not the only thing. Hitting the ball really hard is very rarely a useful skill. It's hitting it at the right speed, accurately, that counts. Soccer aficionados regularly rue play which is too physical, too 'long-ball' and too much in the air, because they are interested in tactics and technical skill, in particular quick successive passing between players to weave a way through a shifting defence. In all this there's no difference between women's and men's soccer.
There's certainly a spectacle in highly physical games. The rugby codes attest to that on their own, but if you want to see some brilliant biff within the soccer code I recommend any game between Celtic and Rangers - great stuff and admittedly a brilliant spectacle in its own right. Meanwhile these girls are pretty tough and they don't hold back - don't get me wrong - but it is the level of raw toughness which provides the main difference in spectacle between women and men playing soccer. In soccer geek land there's arguments about whether women's soccer is as good to watch, and for me I've distilled the reasons to this. For those who love tactics and skill and the ballet of outwitting opponents on and off the ball, there is no difference in the spectacle. Ok, possibly one difference. As a generalisation, women seem to be better team players, they hog the ball less, and appear to intuit better what other players are doing and thinking. But then again, that may just be an observation brought on by the fact that the Matildas are actually brilliant. Any brilliant team looks like this.
An important overall point which must be made is that women's soccer has by no means matured. As I've indicated, women's soccer appears to have success to the extent that women feel liberated to do what they like. I simply have no idea whether women - in a theoretically completely liberated state - would want to play football less or as much as men, and I'm making no sweeping sociological statements about that. It would appear though from current trends that there's still a lot of growth to be seen. And these games are extremely high quality. Let's not even think about the extent to which the gap in quality would close if women had access to the same level of professionalism, coaching, facilities and support that men's soccer players do. Because elite women's soccer is already a comparable spectacle. The point is we don't even really know how equivalent the spectacle can be.
The Matildas are not just good. They are clearly special. As players and personalities, and as a team, they have that bit of magic which compels one to believe in them. They are the most brilliant role-models for our young girls, and perfect icons for Australian patriotism and pride. And I don't particularly blame the Australian people for not being more passionately behind them. Clearly their marketing has failed them because they are about the most marketable product in the country. They are young, beautiful, sexy, talented, committed and Australian. Their personalities and obvious team magic are inspiring. They are doing well on the highest stage available, and don't look like they've peaked.
They are playing Canada in their final group match for the FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007 on Wednesday night. It's live on SBS, from 6.50pm. They're our girls and they're brilliant. Go the Matildas.