Nobody buys a ticket to the women’s French Open final hoping to see Serena Williams hit a Rafael Nadal-style drive or finesse the ball over the net like Roger Federer, just as nobody watches Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva clear the bar and then imagine just how the great Sergey Bubka might have done it.
Yet for some reason, when it comes to watching women’s football, more than a few people compare the players on view to their male counterparts. It is a state of affairs that the stars of the women’s game are anxious to change, determined as they are to be judged, like Williams and Isinbayeva, solely on their own merits.
“People still compare us far too much with the men’s game, which is a problem,” Netherlands international Lieke Martens told FIFA.com. “It’s ridiculous because we’re obviously not as fast or as physically strong as they are.
“When it comes to stamina and physical fitness, well, maybe… but it’s not fair to compare us in terms of power. If people stopped making that comparison, maybe women’s football in general would get the same recognition that it’s earning here in Canada.”
If comparisons are odious, in this particular case they are also unfair. While male professional footballers devote all of their time to training and physical conditioning and compete at the very highest level week in week out, the majority of female players have to juggle jobs or studies with their training.
And when women do make it into the professional ranks, they very often have to change teams and move from country to country every season just to continue competing at the top of their sport.
“Nobody’s going to be seeing Xavi or [Andres] Iniesta here,” warned Veronica Boquete before Spain’s opening match at Canada 2015, offering a curt response to constant questions about which male player she resembles the most.
Expressing her views on the subject to FIFA.com, South Africa’s Dutch coach Vera Pauw said: “People make that comparison because football is the biggest sport in the world and it’s only been recently that women have begun to create some space for themselves in the game.
“There aren’t many female role models yet and they’re not that well known in the media. That’s why this comparison is made all the time. Women’s football has developed so much in the space of a single generation that there are people who are still having problems assimilating it all.”
One set of rules for you…
“If people understood that, then they’d understand the sport better,” added Pauw. “It needs to be judged fairly. There’s hardly any woman’s sport that has to put up with comparisons with its male equivalent, but that’s what people do with football.
“The right thing would be to compare it with other women’s sports. If we did that, we’d see that women’s football arouses more enthusiasm than most, attracts the most spectators and has the largest number of registered players. It’s the biggest women’s sport in the world.”
It is a comparison that is also counterproductive in that it creates false expectations, particularly in countries where women’s football is still developing.
“We started working on women’s football at a very early stage,” said Germany coach Silvia Neid. “We got a lot of support from the national association and from government and we’ve been able to create a competitive league as a result. That’s the way to achieve solid growth.”
Illustrating how much overall standards have risen in the sport in recent years, Neid added: “We won the world title in 2007 but we won’t be winning it this time.”
Those views are shared by France coach Phillipe Bergeroo, whose side impressed at Canada 2015 before going down narrowly to the Germans in the last eight. “A few months ago I read an article that said that the future of sport lay in developing the women’s side of things, which is something I agree with.
“You can’t make the same comparison, though, because although we’ve made a lot of progress in terms of mental and physical preparation and technical skills, we’ll never have the same power and strength. We just have to admire it and enjoy it for what it is.”
As that France-Germany match showed, there is plenty to admire in the women’s game, which is now seeing more role models coming through and greater coverage in the media.
“Girls see us and they now have players they can look up to. They can dream about things that were impossible for us to imagine,” commented Boquete. “That’s the big step forward that we’ve helped bring about.
In also looking to the future of the game, Canada’s Christine Sinclair had this to say after her side’s quarter-final defeat to England at Vancouver’s BC Place Stadium: “I hope there are lots of girls in the stands that we’ve inspired and who’ll take up the game tomorrow and take our national team forward in the future.”
Those youngsters can now dream of being the next Hope Solo or Nadine Angerer, or stick up a poster of Kadeisha Buchanan in their rooms, or model their finishing on the likes of Marie-Laure Delie or Kyah Simon.
And who knows, one day they might even go to the cinema with their friends to see Bend It Like Boquete?