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Bobby McMahon

Bobby McMahon

You can see me on Soccer Central most Mondays and Thursdays on Rogers Sportsnet in Canada. I write a regular column for Forbes.com and Soccerly.com and frequently guest on various podcasts and radio shows.


Critique Of Women’s Game Needs Different Lens

Written by on June 29, 2011 | 15 Comments »
Posted in World Cups

On Tuesday’s podcast we talked a bit about the Women’s World Cup and the need to look at the games and performances through a different lens rather than the one applied to the men’s game.

After I returned home from recording the podcast an article in the Guardian from John Ashdown in conversation with England’s goalkeeper Karen Bardsley caught my eye.

Titled “Are preconceptions about women goalkeepers out of date,” my immediate hope was that this was the sort of thing we had been trying to get at.

Alas, it proved to be a false hope and it really offered nothing new or insightful. The irony was that I read the article just after watching the post-game show of England v Mexico on Monday on CBC in Canada.

The lead analyst Jason de Vos was critical of both goalkeepers on the goals they allowed – one of the goalkeepers was, of course, the aforementioned Karen Bardsley.

Given that Canada’s goalkeeper Erin McLeod came in for a bit of stick for the opening goal scored by Germany there seems to a pretty predictable pattern already emerging in terms of analysis.

It is going to be a tough World Cup for goalkeepers…. again.

But within the three goals conceded and critiqued, there is, I hope, an element of the point that we were trying to make.

The opening goal conceded by Canada was from a cross to the back post, the goal conceded by Mexico was a header from a corner that went over the goalkeeper while the Mexico goal allowed by England was a long-range effort that flew into the net.

The goals in question conceded by Mexico and Canada were both from crosses.

A quick look at the squad lists and player information informed me that Erin McLeod is 5′ 9″ and Cecilia Santiago of Mexico 5′ 8″.

Female goalkeepers coming in at 5′ 9″ are not going to dominate a penalty box like a 6′ 5″ male keeper nor are they physically capable of stretching to get a ball someone 8″ taller is going to reach with ease.

To criticize McLeod and Santiago for not reaching the ball is like giving Stevie Wonder a stern telling off for not being able to read sheet music.

These two goalkeepers are not going to grow no matter how much they are blamed for losing goals on account of being vertically challenged.

Would a more informed and insightful analysis not take into consideration  the height of the goalkeepers?

Instead of pointing the finger of blame at the keepers, point the viewer to the build-up to the goal and how a situation that results in a cross into the box is likely to be more dangerous than we might expect while watching a men’s match.

The case of Karen Bardsley was a bit different in that she hits the tape at around 6’2″ and is one of the taller goalkeepers at the tournament.

She was criticized for her initial reaction to the long-range shot.

Fair enough but she will not be the last goalkeeper to be beaten by a long-range effort at this World Cup and more times than not it will be shorter keepers who will be victimized.

Again, there is a need to reconsider the context of such goals and perhaps the emphasis should be placed on how more it is even more important in the women’s game to make sure that long-range shots that swerve and (more dangerously) dip are blocked to begin with and don’t get through.

Now there will be old-timers out there who remember a time when male goalkeepers came in what we might call the “Nick Rimando” size.

Rimando is of course the goalkeeper for Real Salt Lake of MLS who at 5′ 10″ is a pygmy compared to the size of the average goalkeeper nowadays.

The Real Salt Lake keeper is valued for his incredible agility and reactions rather than his height – although he does have an impressive spring that allows him to challenge for crosses.

But more to the point Real Salt Lake have a couple of very big centre backs in Jamison Olave (6’3″) and Nate Borchers (6’2″) who are there to take care of high crosses into the penalty area.

Real Salt Lake understand Rimando’s limitations but are willing to accept them on account of his strengths.

A few decades ago agility and micro-second reaction times were the most prized qualities in a goalkeeper.

But that was also a time when swerving a ball was a skill few were endowed with and shots went straight and if crosses moved in the air it was predictable.

As the ball changed so did the skill sets required of a goalkeeper and in many cases size trumped all.

The evolution of the women’s game and the physical stature of the available athletes means that they have to cope with a much more unpredictable ball than keepers from a bygone era and the crossbar is still at 8′.

Surely that is worthy of mention rather than launching into criticism?

The analyst’s lens needs to be re-calibrated and it must take into account of the physical differences in the game and how that often makes women’s soccer very different from the male version.

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15 responses to “Critique Of Women’s Game Needs Different Lens”

  1. eric nash says:

    I think that the difference in the size of the goalkeepers, is evened out by the fact that women can’t strike the ball with as much pace as the men. This gives the women keepers more time to react to a long range shot. Same with crosses,although yhe keeper probably has the same reaction time to a headed cross regardless of the speed of the cross. As far as the height, I assume the women keepers have the “ups” to get to the cross bar.

  2. Gus Keri says:


    You focused your article, very nicely, on goalkeeping but I find it true for many other situations and not only women soccer.

    The two major differences between the women and men games are the biological/psychological factor and the experience.

    There is no doubt that body reacts differently to estrogen than to testosteron, on both the physical and the emotional level. this makes for a different type of game. For example, women’s game is less agressive than the men’s game.

    The other issue is the experience. Men have been playing the game for centuries while women started just in the last few decades. For women to reach the level of sophistication that the men have, they need a long time of practices. It might take few decades to get there.

    Using one lens too watch all soccer is wrong. This also true for men’s game. You can’t judge the U-17 world cup with the men’s lenses. You can’t judge MLS with the champions league’s lenses. Every one need a few sets of lenses. For each competition its own lens.

  3. rdm says:

    I think playing the “men have been playing for centuries” card is a little disingenuous. Unless there’s some sort of DNA memory relating directly to soccer skills I’m not familiar with, what’s to prevent a good coach from taking an unschooled (when it comes to soccer) young girl and turning her into a powerhouse of the sport as opposed to a young boy?

    Of course it’s a different game, but your implication that its “lesser sophistication” is dependent on the fact that women only started playing relatively recently is both unnecessary and misses the point.

  4. Soccerlogical says:

    Women! You Can’t Live With Them….. Pass The Beer Nuts…

  5. Gus Keri says:


    I didn’t mean a “DNA memory” type of experience, although, science didn’t rule it out yet. I was referring to the whole “social” experience of it.

    Even now, in certain areas of the world, soccer is thought of as a men’s game. When you grew up as a boy in this kind of environment, you will be very encouraged to play soccer. You will have a lot of role models to follow. the whole histoy of soccer is based on men’s game. It’s very easy to excel in it.

    But on the women side, things are different. Little girls don’t have role models to follow. (recently things are changing with the likes of Mia Hamm and Marta)
    Also, they are not being pushed as hard in training as would a boy. If you read some of the youth coaching articles, you would noticed that some coaches approach the girls teams differently.

    If you look at kids’ birthdays, you are more likely to see a sporting gifts to boys than to girls. It’s an inherited bias.

    Of course things are improving and getting better.
    One reason why German girls are getting better is the fact that the elite players are playing soccer with boys at a young age.
    marta’s personal story tells how playing with boys improve her game.

    So, there is nothing wrong with stating facts and trying to confront it.
    It’s multifactorial issue and all aspect of girl’s game should improve for them to achieve the men’s game sophistication.

  6. Sandra says:

    I just feel that the women’s game is still developing and maturing. If you saw the men’s game in the 1920s today you’d made a lot of similar observations about how unsophisticated the game was back then.

    Good piece, Bobby. And heartfelt gratitude too for talking about the womens game with consideration – every 4 yrs at this time I and so many female footy fans have to deal with so much ignorance & sexist bigotry from a lot of men who are so close-minded and enjoy insulting & ridiculing women. Always interesting to listen to men who actually work in the women’s game-they actually know what the hell they’re talking about.

  7. Russell Berrisford says:

    It looks as though the outfield players have learned that a well placed shot is at least as effective as a well hit one. Hence we see balls often floating purposefully into the top corner of the net as opposed to being hit with the random power that we get in the men’s game.

    What we should be doing is praising the ability to consistently find the top corner, as opposed to damning a keeper for not saving such an accurate effort.

  8. The woman’s game is maturing as Sandra said and Gus is right, that each competition earns its own lens, but what is the solution. Maybe change the dimensions of the goal post? I can’t see any other change having serious effect on the pitch

  9. Terry143 says:

    I think the size of women’s goal posts should be reduced a few inches both in height and width.

  10. @terry, how do we petition changes to FIFA for this regulatory change? what will the argument be to detractors who say this is sexism or bringing inequality in the modern era of society?
    How are the business which make goalpost going to be convinced to sell two different model types?
    Will FIFA need to make a type of goal post that can modulate?

    Here are some of my other thoughts on mr. mcmahon’s talks http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/8172417/raves_and_rants_response_june_23_2011.html?cat=14

  11. Dave in Philly says:

    I am somewhat new to the women’s game, do any of the teams use a five midfield formation? It seemed in most of the games I watched they either had 4-4-2, 3-4-3 or something along those lines.

  12. I just want to say for the record, two of France’s exquisite goals, were high headers. The second Thiney and first Thomis, was all about class difference

  13. John Bladen says:

    I’m not in favour of modifying the pitch or goal size to ‘account’ for the generally smaller stature of female players. If we do that, why not also do the same for the men? There are plenty of quality GK’s 5’10” or under who may never be given the chance to play at the elite level with the goal the size it is (and has always been).

    Smaller goalkeepers occasionally have agility and speed that larger players lack (though, with modern training methods, this is less and less the case). The current trend toward goalkeeper size (whether it comes with comparable skill or not) may also pass, just as other trends in the game have over the years.

  14. John Bladen says:

    Bobby: Agree re: McLeod. It’s tempting to say she should not have come out for the goal in question, but what was her option? Had she remained on her line, the attacker would have scored anyway.

    Whether it’s football or hockey or ???, it’s always easiest to blame the person in goal rather than the defenders who put them in the no-win situation in the first place.

    What did you think of Clare Rustad’s analysis?

    I thought she was harsh (perhaps unforgiving would be a better description), but can’t argue with any of the points she made. It was refreshing to hear something other than the usual “golly, plucky Canadians, things just didn’t quite work out for them…”

  15. Dave in Philly – I have yet to see a coach packing the midfield at the WWC.

    John – I like listening to her for the specific reasons you laid out. I have never understood the mentality in Canadian soccer that requires everyone to acknowledge how hard the team tried in defeat – as if the winning team somehow cheated by not trying and still winning.

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