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122 years of women’s soccer

Players from England’s Women’s football team celebrate a goal, in their 2-0 victory over Spain in the Women’s World Cup last week.
By Eric Weil / Sportsworld

The sport needs changes and FIFA must step in

122 years ago women started playing soccer... in England. In 1895, a women’s team — the British Ladies’ Football Club — was founded in England and also with it a women’s football association. . A match played that year was watched by 10,000 spectators, most of them out of curiosity apparently and they ridiculed the players.

It was 22 years later, in 1917, that Dick, Kerr’s Ladies FC was founded, mostly by factory workers who replaced the men who went off to World War I. But in 1921, the English Football Association banned ladies soccer for 50 years.

In 1957, the International Association of Women’s Football was formed and in 1966, the first unofficial world tournament was played in England, in spite of the ban which was lifted five years later.

In 1984, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) took over the responsibility of women’s tournaments on the continent. Today the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) and UEFA both award prizes to the best female players of the year.

At this moment the Women’s World Cup is being played in the Netherlands and one curiosity is that the England team is nicknamed “the Lionesses” just as Argentina’s women’s national field hockey team is.

In South America, women’s soccer began much later as men had a more “machista” attitude.

SOCCER NEEDS CHANGES

Today’s soccer is spoilt by defensive coaching and an emphasis on the physical side of the game rather than skill, but the authorities at FIFA are showing few signs of any willingness to change the situation.

There have been changes, including the significant one of awarding three points for a win, instead of two, but it always takes time for them to be approved by the various committees. In fact, soccer will not copy some good points from other sports — such as field hockey, rugby, tennis etc. — by allowing technology in the game.

Soccer is a sport in chains, which rarely finds the freedom to be the lively game it can be, but many of the chains are self-imposed. There have been signs recently of attempted improvement by coaches who have moved a third attacker and even a fourth attacker up the pitch, from the classical formula of 4-4-2. We know, of course, that coaches always fear for their jobs if they lose too many matches, hence the preference for defensive tactics. Coaches are never given enough time to prepare their teams before being dismissed.

The other side of the game is the financial one, the business of soccer is played out in club committees and agents’ offices. In the past, these antics remained mostly in the background. But with more money in the game, it was only natural that they would attract more people, also the ones who only want to make some personal profit from the game.

FIFA once made a law that players’ contracts have to be owned exclusively by their clubs — a law which was not kept, nor were sanctions imposed, although clubs could obtain players, who are owned by mostly crooks, which they would otherwise not be able to buy.

Profits or losses of millions of dollars now hinge on the result of one game or one goal. Elimination from tournaments such as the Champions League or the Libertadores Cup can cost a club possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars in television revenue, ticket sales and other sources.

Goals are the highlight of the game for spectators and the game that has often been mentioned as the greatest ever was the 1960 European Cup final in which Real Madrid beat Eintracht Frankfurt in a game that featured 10 goals. Brazil’s 1970 World Cup winning team has been called the greatest ever, because they scored an average of three goals per game, many of them were classic goals.

Is this defensive vice of concern to the sport’s leaders, FIFA and the various continental and national bodies below them? There have been minor changes to favour attacking soccer such as the minor alteration to the offside rule and the ban (not often applied) on tackling from behind. The decision was that any tackle that endangers the safety of the opponent must be punished with a sending-off, which rarely happens nowadays. The “endangering” part was left to the judgement of the referee, as was whether a player was offside.

I say scrap it altogether as field hockey has done. It was thought that this would spoil the game, but it has not. Under FIFA’s watered-down change to the offside rule, most decisions went against the attacker, not the defender.

More difficult to change is the tactical foul in midfield when an attacking move is broken down — usually done by holding an opponent. The referee awards a free kick, but it gives the defence a chance to fall back and reorganise. The question is how can this “gamesmanship” be stopped?

Then there is “diving” in the penalty area when an attacker tries to get a penalty. “Diving” is punishable, at least by a yellow card and it is often difficult for the referee to judge whether the attacker was tripped or if he threw himself to the floor, as other players may be obstructing his view.

The reduction in goals may have something to do with goalkeepers too. They tend to be bigger and more athletic now — that is why they nicknamed the Argentine international goalkeeper Sergio Romero “Chiquito,” because he is tall — but goals have remained the same size. Also, goalkeepers are untouchable, now not only in the six-yard area, but throughout the entire penalty area.

The penalty shoot-out provides more evidence. A goalkeeper is not allowed to advance off his goal-line, but sometimes he does slightly. The penalty is never retaken, but if the penalty-taker moves the ball just a few centimetres from the penalty spot before his kick, he is not allowed to take the penalty.

Around 30 years ago, Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, who would later become FIFA president, said he wished to see an attacking game but it has remained just a wish. That is similar to the organisation’s attitude on head injuries. Soccer is the only sport I can think of where the ball is played by the head and this could cause concussion and even long-term brain damage. Yet FIFA’s initial reaction was to say this school of thought was alarmist and that there was no problem without scientific evidence. Later came a sort of admission that well, yes, there may have been some problems, but with the modern lighter and coated ball that was all in the past.

Lawsuits by families of players with brain damage, both against FIFA and the English Football Association got nowhere and it was suggested that most concussions came about by the clashing of heads or the arms of rivals. This matter will not be easy to solve and lawyers are gathering evidence in order for trials to be more successful in future. This column has suggested that heading should be completely forbidden. That would solve a large part of the problem, but others say it would spoil the game.

Goalkeepers tend to clear the ball by kicking it high upfield, in the hope it produces a goal. This may happen just one percent of the time, but much more often it produces ta bunch of players trying to head the ball, heads clashing and is followed by a repeat performance by another bunch of players.

In 2003, FIFA made the surprising announcement that players could wear soft helmets and soft padding for the head if necessary. It could make players use soft padding over elbows, knees, hips, and shoulders. They could end up looking like American Football players. But would this encourage players to be more aggressive?

The best soccer is still played on the ground and attackers and defenders would be forced to improve their game with dribbling skills.

THIS ALSO HAPPENED IN SOCCER

In November, 1957, Racing Club was leading the local championship, but lost 2-1 at home to Estudiantes de La Plata. The winners were celebrating in their changing-room when the linesman came to tell them that the referee had made a mistake and had finished the game five minutes early and that the Racing Club was waiting for them on the field. With four minutes to go, Juan J. Kellemen scored an equaliser. That championship was eventually won by River Plate.

If this happened today, people would look at their watches and complain that the game had ended early, but that was that. The proper time keeping could be done by a giant clock in the stadium, placed where it could be seen by everybody, including the referee. This has often been suggested by this column and it is one of these things that shows that soccer does not want to advance.

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