From Simon Hattenstone, Guardian Unlimited
With the season drawing to its close, a London football club can still win an unprecedented quadruple. They have battled through injury and suspension to talismanic players, dodgy refereeing that challenges the very nature of democracy, outrageous expectation and exhaustion. And still they keep going.
Step forward the amazing Arsenal Ladies.
On Sunday they won the Uefa Cup by drawing 0-0 at home to Umea IK, the world’s top-ranked team, after a 1-0 win in Sweden. They have won the League Cup and have run away with the Premiership (three games to go, played 19, won 19, goal difference +100). All they need do is beat Charlton in the FA Cup final on Monday.
The Arsenal men’s team went through 2003-04 unbeaten in the Premiership. The women’s team emulated them in 2004-05, 2005-06 and, so far, 2006-07. Phenomenal. They recently went 2-0 down in the first 20 minutes away to Charlton, but fought back to edge it 9-2.
My friend Paula has followed women’s football for years and says watching it is like rewinding to the beginning of time. “Fans turn up for the love of it, players play for the love of it, and you feel part of it. It’s uncontaminated, uncommercial and funny – you can hear what the players shout at the ref.”
The away win at Umea was against all odds. Arsenal believed Umea had underestimated them – the goalkeeper Emma Byrne said that while they were going through a rigorous routine of stretches before the match, the opposition were casually playing keepie-uppie in a circle. “I think they thought they had it in the bag.”
Sunday’s second leg against Umea was played in front of 3,467 at Boreham Wood FC’s Meadow Park. The semi-professional Arsenal, lacking the England striker Kelly Smith, who was suspended, defended for 90 minutes against the professional Swedes. They tackled like fury, desperately headed balls from the danger area and held their collective breath as Umea hit the post and the bar. One shot slammed off the metalwork, slapped Byrne in the face, concussing her, and miraculously went wide. Lucky Arsenal, as the boys used to say.
The Ladies didn’t just beat Umea, they beat Marta, the world’s best female footballer. Marta, a Brazilian formally known as Marta Vieira da Silva, is an astonishing sight – think Ronaldinho meets Cristiano Ronaldo. On YouTube there is a wonderful clip in which she beats two players by doing a pair of 360 degree turns at pace with the ball glued to her feet. But however good Marta is, she was not good enough to derail Arsenal Ladies.
The women’s game has a long way to go before it is treated as seriously as it is in Sweden, White says. Umea were formed in 1917, have their own ground, big-time sponsors and regular crowds of 3,000. But White is hopeful we will see full-scale professional women’s football in England, though probably not within her playing lifetime.
Arsenal Ladies were formed in 1987 by the current general manager (and kit manager to the men’s team) Vic Akers. For league matches, they typically get between 350 and 400 fans. In 20 years, they have won 24 trophies, including three trebles. Akers described Sunday’s victory as “the biggest moment in my career” before heading off to the Emirates to sort out the kit for the men’s match against Fulham.