Despite its huge popularity, women's football has failed to make an impact on the public consciousness. Scott Wilson finds out why.

IT is often said that, when a major football tournament gets under way, the country grinds to a halt. The television schedules are completely rewritten, office workers start mysteriously going sick, and England's fate becomes the one topic on everybody's lips.

So it might surprise you to learn that the European Championships will kick off on Sunday afternoon in Blackpool without so much as a whimper.

No souvenir supplements in the newspapers, no news bulletins gauging morale in the England camp, and no Union Jacks fluttering from roofs and balconies. Hardly any interest at all, in fact, and all because the people playing in this month's Euro 2005 tournament will be women.

Last month, the Football Association released their latest figures for women's football. They showed that there are now 101,000 women and girls playing regular 11-a-side football in England - a higher female participation rate than in any other sport.

Yet, when Sweden take on Denmark in Euro 2005's opening game this weekend, they will do so against a backdrop of almost total indifference.

Women's football has taken some giant strides in the last ten years but, despite the best efforts of those involved in the game, it remains a minority sport played by the majority of young girls.

"In terms of the number of participants, it's certainly continuing to grow," says Jen O'Neill, a former captain of Sunderland AFC Women who now edits Fair Game magazine, England's only periodical completely devoted to women's football.

"The popularity shows no sign of abating, especially amongst younger girls. There was a 30 per cent increase in the number of girls playing the game last year, and that figure has stayed fairly consistent for the last four or five years. But, despite all of that, it's still fair to say that it's largely ignored. I don't think it's just football - I think women's sport in general is largely ignored by certain sections of the media.

"I've worked in the game for a long time now and you gradually become immune to it. Through time, you start to accept that this is just the way it is, but you shouldn't have to accept it. The bottom line is that it's just not good enough. You're alienating 50 per cent of the population because the idea that women aren't interested in sport is absolute rubbish.

"They are interested in sport but, at the moment, they're being fed an image of sport being only for men. It's improving, but there's still a long way to go until we demolish that idea altogether."

The growing participation rates obviously help but, while girls might be playing football at school or on a weekend, they are still far more likely to associate the game with David Beckham or Alan Shearer than any of the players who will be representing England in the North West this month.

Female attendance at male Football League games rose by almost 70 per cent between 2000 and 2003. The challenge for the women's game is to channel those girls towards a Women's Premier League that continues to operate on a shoestring budget in front of scant crowds.

Attitudes do not change overnight but, by progressing to the latter stages of this month's competition, the English national side could raise their sport's profile higher than it has ever been before.

"The number of girls playing the game is one thing but when people talk about the strength of a sport, they talk about what's happening at the very top end," says O'Neill. "Rightly or wrongly, some people will look at how England do in these championships and make judgements about women's football as a whole from that. In a way that's unfortunate but, on the other hand, England are competing at a higher level than they ever have before and it's good that people are going to get the chance to see that.

"It's difficult to convert people to the game when all they see is one game a year on their television screens. That game is normally the FA Cup final and, as Arsenal and Manchester United proved in the men's game the other week, FA Cup finals are not normally the best games of football.

"Some of the best female players in the world will be playing in the North West in the next few weeks and, hopefully, people will take the chance to see just how good they are.

"I'd like to think that men who might not normally give the game a second glance would take the time to watch a match. But, perhaps more importantly, I'd like to think that girls who are thinking about getting into football watch some of the games. All children need a role model and instead of it being David Beckham or Britney Spears, I'd like to think it could be Kelly Smith (of Watford) or Faye White (of Sussex)."

There are, of course, various ways to market a sport and women's football has spent the last decade toying with how to handle its femininity. On the one hand, female players are forced to fend off barely-concealed questions about their sexuality while, on the other, they are urged to use their femininity to gain maximum exposure.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter was roundly condemned last year when he claimed women should play in "tighter shorts" to make the game more appealing. Hardly the right message from the corridors of power, but one that continues to hold sway amongst certain sections of the population.

"It shouldn't be sold as a sexy sport as it would not be taken seriously," argues Faye White, who will be skippering England when they play their opening game of the tournament against Finland on Sunday night. "But it needs to be appealing to girls as well. The kits have been made more feminine over the past few years, which has helped. We used to play in men's gear which was extra large. Now, the shorts and T-shirts are designed for the female body.

"It's just a stereotype to imagine that all female football players are masculine. I'm not someone who would wear high heels every day, but I do wear them. When the occasion calls for it, I like dressing up."

She will be wearing the Three Lions with pride on Sunday and, after winning nine of their last ten games, England enter the tournament with every chance of making the last four of a major tournament for the very first time.

"If you talk to a lot of experienced American judges, they'll tell you that Kelly Smith is pretty much the best player in the world at the moment," says O'Neill. "She's the one player that I think could really make a massive breakthrough this month in terms of exposure.

"She's been plagued by injury for the last three or four years and, by her own admission, has never really reached her full potential yet. Hopefully for England, that'll happen this month. Everything's a bit of an unknown at the moment though, because most of the squad are so young. Their recent form has been fantastic, but there's got to be a question mark over how some of the younger players will react to such a pressurised situation.

"You've got someone like Karen Carney from Birmingham who's combining playing in this tournament with doing her A-level exams. That's the reality of women's football - very few of these younger players can commit 100 per cent to football without making sure they've got something to fall back on at the end of it all."

* The women's Euro 2005 tournament is taking place from June 5-19 across the North West. For more details visit