Why Laura Bassett is a ‘hero’ and Steve McLaren is a ‘wally with a brolly’ (and why it’s nothing to do with gender)

Amongst the hype of the Women’s World Cup has been an inevitable minor backlash. This, in itself, isn’t a criticism of the backlash, I think it’s perfectly naturally. As soon as something gets put on a pedestal, there are some who aren’t quite sure it deserves to be that high, and so have to pull it down slightly harder to bring it down to what they think is the right level.

Some of this backlash has revolved around why Laura Bassett and her team-mates were called heroes, instead of villains whose effigies should be burnt as they apparently (according to some) would have been had they been in the men’s team. Is this a form of discrimination or minor sexism, is the question explicitly or implicitly asked, either by treating the men more harshly or by being patronising to the women?

No, it’s not.

Full disclosure. I was 1 when Gareth Southgate missed the penalty that took us out of Euro ’96, and 3 when David Beckham got himself sent off against Argentina at the World Cup two years later, so I have not experienced the hate that they received. I was also only pretty young when Rooney got sent off in Euro ’04 and when we failed to qualify for Euro ’08, so I also can’t really gauge what the media reaction to those incidents was.

Despite this, it’s pretty clear how the modern media treats moments like these. It tends to swing to extremes, as does Twitter. So, if unfortunates are not despicable failures, they are noble but unfortunate heroes. Heroes is a bit of an extreme way to describe Laura Bassett, but it came about in a moment where we, the English viewing public, were trying to rally around and support her. I’m not explaining why she’s a ‘hero’, I’m explaining why it’s not the fact that she’s a woman as to why she received sympathy and not spite.

Supporting a sports team is not about logic. We should all know this by now. Why do Newcastle United fans still flock to St James’ Park when they know that Mike Ashley has no intention of making their club what they want it to be? Why do Manchester United fans think all of the transfer and wage fees for Robin van Persie are justified by the fact they won a Premier League title, which they actually already do pretty often? Why am I a huge fan of Rafael and Danny Welbeck, despite the fact that all evidence says they are not the world-best players I would whole-heartedly love them to be?

The England Men’s team has baggage. Over the last few decades we’ve had to put up with tournament after tournament where they have failed to live up to expectations. Does anyone really love watching the England Men’s team? Every match is a repetitive cycle of over-analysis, and a curious mixture of too much hope, no belief, and begrudgement. Do we hope that we win, or do we hope that we lose miserably so that we have something to feel because we know deep down that we’re not going to succeed anyway?

With the Women’s team in this World Cup, it’s different. This is the first time that many people have properly followed the side, myself included. We’ve come to it fresh, without the baggage, still with genuine hope that we can do well with a child-like lack of cynicism. We got out of the groups, which was expected. We got through the second round, which was probably expected. Anything from now on, particularly given that our quarter-final match was against the host, felt like a bonus. We won the quarter-final.

From a starting position of genuine interest we grew to a genuine support, and from there to a genuine love of the team. We could have played abysmally against Japan, lost in the manner that the East Asians themselves lost in the final, and the collective mood of the viewing public would still have been pride. We’d got to a semi-final of a football World Cup. Maybe it’s something of a ‘you had to be there’ kind of thing.

We went down to Japan but pulled it back, and were on the front foot. We’d have probably won that match had it gone to extra time. But our expectations were already exceeded, and we loved our team. Laura Bassett had the misfortune we’ve seen so many defenders have, and that many of us have probably experienced.

I think, as well as the dynamic of the support for the Women’s team, this is also a factor – it was genuine misfortune. Had she not stuck her leg out, Japan probably would have scored anyway, and the ball could quite easily have been deflected behind for a corner, or out for a throw-in, or into the keeper’s hands, or off the crossbar and out. Missed penalties, or penalties given away, or red cards received, or a systematically dismal qualification campaign, are all the responsibility of the individual to a larger extent. Laura Bassett was unlucky – Southgate was a poor penalty taker; Beckham and Rooney were foolish; McLaren and his team were not very good.

It has nothing to do with the fact Laura Bassett is a woman.

It has nothing to do with the fact Laura Bassett is a woman.

The dynamic of support is hugely different between the England Men’s team and the England Women’s team, and this is the driving factor, I feel, in why Laura Bassett was treated with such sympathy instead of acidic, hateful vitriol. I support male players in different ways too, alluded to earlier in the article. If Wayne Rooney were to miss a sitter at a vital moment in an England match, my reaction would be pretty different to if Danny Welbeck missed it. I’d be there with a virtual arm around the shoulder for Welbz, I’d probably be a lot slower and begrudging in offering one for Rooney.

Laura Bassett was a victim of misfortune, not mistake, in a team that had genuine, loving, unexpectant support.

It has nothing to do with the fact Laura Bassett is a woman.


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