One of the reasons often given for not watching women’s football is the low quality of its goalkeeping. This is at least an improvement over the suggestion that all the play is of low quality, which tends to ring hollow when it comes from the same people who would describe lower league or grassfoots football as “proper” football.
(My personal opinion is that the only acceptable reason for not watching women’s football is that you don’t want to – you don’t have to justify your actions to anyone, the kind of people that are going to jump down your throat for being sexist don’t support it in any tangible way either, and those that do don’t care. It’s doing increasingly well without you, so who cares?)
However, the increased exposure that this Women’s World Cup has given the women’s game means more people are noticing one of its fundamental problems. In the United States’ 13-0 thrashing of Thailand the height of 5ft 5 Sukanya Chor Charoenying prompted suggestions that maybe women’s football should have smaller goals and 5ft 7 Lee Alexander seeing a shot sail over her head against Japan did little to quell them.
There’s an understandable reluctance to differ from the men’s game in order to seek greater equality, but biological differences mean that female goalkeepers have to work significantly harder to cover the same goal as their male counterparts.
A quick glance through average worldwide heights suggests an average difference of about 5 inches between men and women. Factor in not only the height but also the arm length and it becomes clear that in order to have the same chance of covering the goal, a woman has to make significantly more steps than a man to get into a position for a successful dive, which requires extra time that an attacker is unlikely to give them.
I have worked with a goalkeeper shorter than Chor Charoenying and Alexander and, while her positioning was excellent and she could save anything in her range with perfect form, there were some shots she wouldn’t be able to save for reasons beyond her control – no matter how fast her feet moved there was no way she would be able to get into a position to save before it left the opponent’s foot.
When Hope Solo, one of the best goalkeepers to grace the women’s game, would be instantly dismissed by the men’s for no reason other than her height of 5ft 9, you have to accept there’s other things at play beyond ability. After all, children play in different sized pitches and goals – a smaller pitch would make the men’s game significantly harder but no one would suggest that means children are superior players to fully-grown men.
How you go about enforcing this rule change would be difficult however: women’s football already has a hard enough time getting access to pitches and other resources to train and play, adding extra requirements for goals would only make this harder.
Nevertheless, depsite agreeing with the suggestion that women’s football would benefit from smaller goal, I also think that Iwabuchi’s goal isn’t a great example of why.
Japan retrieve the ball on the edge of the Scotland area after Rachel Corsie fails to properly clear a low bouncing cross – under pressure she can’t control the ball, but having to stoop down she can’t get any power on her header either, meaning it weakly bounces to Jun Endo.
Endo dribbles inside, forcing Caroline Weir into confronting her. With Weir drawn across, space opens up ahead of Iwabuchi and Endo squeezes though a pass to her.
Alexander had initially been set for a shot from Endo, but the pass to Iwabuchi requires that she change her position, taking two steps inside.
Once repositioning, she doesn’t get set again though. Maybe her view is blocked by Jen Beattie, who really should be trying to close down Iwabuchi – it’s difficult to tell from the angle – but regardless she stays tall as the ball leaves Iwabuchi’s foot.
This means that she’s having to bend down to get any spring to her jump while the ball is in flight. The ball is already half-way to the goal by the time she’s set and in the end she just doesn’t give herself enough time to make the movements, throwing up her hands without jumping.
Does Alexander save that shot if she’s 6 ft tall? Yes, probably. Can the goal be blamed solely on her height? Not really.