Continental Cup Final: women’s game celebrated with a festival of football

// 11 October 2012

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It’s a damp, muzzy autumn evening in North London, and yet the shouts of children playing football in the park can be heard from a mile off.

Once you get closer, walking down the suburban side streets, you can hear the thumping beat of pop music, and the occasional interruption of a tannoy announcer.

This is an FA Girls’ Football Festival, held next to Barnet’s Underhill ground prior to the Continental Cup Final between Arsenal and Birmingham.

For those who don’t want to kick a ball around in a match, there’s a penalty shoot-out, dance machines, face-painting, and the opportunity to pose with the FA Women’s Super League Trophy, won last week by Arsenal.

It’s all part of the outreach work to the community being done by the FA, and a chance to capitalise on the success of the women’s team during the Olympics.

An attendance of 2,535 might not seem that much, but it’s 500 up on last year, and on a par with the attendances in the very best of semi-professional men’s football.

Because, though these women are elite athletes, semi-professional is what they are.

Arsenal boast university students in pacy forward Danielle Carter and versatile Jen Beattie, and have several players who also work as coaches during the day, such as goalkeeper Emma Byrne and veteran Rachel Yankey.

There’s their captain Katie Chapman, mother of two small boys, and with intentions to one day hang up her boots and become a beautician.

Birmingham have Rachel Williams, a plasterer, who also took on caring responsibilities for her younger brother after the death of their mother; and Eniola Aluko, a lawyer who made her England debut while studying for A-levels.

Kim Little, 22 years old and with nearly 100 Scotland caps to her name already, won the Cup for Arsenal with a stunning strike seven minutes from time. She was awarded player of the match, but the announcer got her name wrong, calling her “Karen”. Can you imagine Steven Gerrard being called “Stuart” by mistake?

The FA are finally pouring resources into the women’s game, after a shameful majority of the 20th century when they banned females from playing on any FA-approved ground. They want the next generation of girls to grow up knowing that the game is for them too. Free tickets for schools and youth groups, encouraging them to watch the sport, plus on-site entertainment is a good start.

Perhaps one day soon these top-class sportspeople will get the recognition – supporting, media and financial – they deserve.

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