The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup qualifiers last week threw up some pretty big score lines, one of them being England’s 10-0 victory over Latvia.
Inevitably with high scoring games like this comes the perennial question: should the goal size be reduced for women’s football?
The debate went global when the United States Women’s National team (USWNT) demolished the Thailand Women’s National team 13-0 in the group stages of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
The Thai goalkeeper at the time, Sukanya Chor Charoenying, was 5ft 5in. This is nine inches smaller than the average height of male goalkeepers in the FIFA Men’s World Cup 2018 (6ft 2in).
“Far too quickly the response to any discussion like this is defensive. The debate is closed down out of a misplaced fear that it will damage women’s football.”
Hayes highlighted other sports where changes have been made to take the differences between the male and female physique into account.
Sprint hurdles are nine inches shorter, a smaller ball is used in women’s basketball and the net is seven and a half inches lower in women’s volleyball.
In BT Sport’s State of Play, Hayes was even more explicit:
“There is often a criticism about goal keeping in the women’s game, I would argue that the goal is just a little bit too big.”
The average height of starting goalkeepers in the Women’s Super League (WSL) 2021-2022 season is 5ft 8in. This is seven inches smaller than the average height of their counterparts in the Premier League (6ft 3in). Does Hayes make a good point, then?
Ex-goalkeeper for the USWNT and World Cup champion, Hope Solo, doesn’t think so:
“I think it’s sexist, to be quite honest. I think it’s infuriating, and I take great offence to that.”
She discussed the topic on Yahoo Sport presents: The Football Show 24/7, saying:
“There are physical differences of course, but you don’t see it in the score line. If that was the case, you would see more goals.”
Looking at the stats from the opening games of the 2021/2022 season, the average clean sheet percentage is marginally higher in the WSL (31.6%) than in the Premier League (31%).
Clean sheets may not always tell the whole story, but it seems fair to say that keeping the ball out of the net is far from an enigma in the women’s game. If there is a big score line in a WSL match these days, it is generally very one-sided.
So, doesn’t this say more about the disparity between certain teams and their resources, rather than the fact that the goalkeepers aren’t tall enough to sufficiently cover their goal?
This is certainly Solo’s view. She went on to say: “I really think we need better goalkeeper trainers throughout the world. I don’t think we have enough quality goalkeeper training.”
Bethany-May Howard, goalkeeper for Bridgwater United FC Women, who currently sit third in the Southern Premier Division of The FA Women’s National League gave her opinion on the matter:
“I don’t think there’s any need to make the goals smaller at all. If you can touch the crossbar – which female goalkeepers should be able to do with a small jump at worst – then you can save the ball. Practising power in leaps, timing of jumps and positioning are all key to not being beat by a high ball.
“There needs to be more access to specific goalkeeper coaching for girls growing up, so that they learn and grow with the right foundations to develop from.”
There is no doubt that the standard of goalkeeping in women’s football is used as a stick to beat the women’s game with.
“It’s a very exposed position and every mistake in goal is highlighted, but sadly when it’s a female making that mistake it’s taken as indicative of the level of female goalkeeping across the board, when men are not held to same account”, said Howard.
It is possible that changing the goal size to be proportional with that of the average female’s physique may reduce the number of goals scored.
It may also encourage more young girls to take up goalkeeping (not just the ‘tall’ girls), increasing competition for the position and therefore raising performance levels.
But is the suggestion and its implication that it would automatically improve the standard of goalkeeping just plain patronising?
It’s very possible that many of the sensational goals we have seen in the WSL simply would not have happened if the goal size had been smaller, such as Katie McCabe’s wondrous strike against Everton at Meadow Park this season.
Could eradicating such goals really be viewed as an improvement on the game?
There are also basic logistics to consider. It’s already hard enough for women’s teams to get access to pitches, especially at underage and grassroots level. And even when they do, their matches and training sessions are often shunted to inconvenient times to make way for the men.
It’s therefore reasonable to conclude that changing the goal size could ultimately undermine the development of the women’s game.
Many would agree with Solo that this is not where the focus is needed as women’s football gains more traction; that importance instead needs to be put on developing resources for the smaller teams and improving the coaching levels from grassroots.
The truth is, both sides of the debate clearly have valid points and highly respected women in football as advocates.
Maybe the question we should really be asking is: when do we stop comparing every aspect of the women’s game to the men’s and start judging it on its own merits?
Is every aspect of the elite men’s game so perfect, that we’re simply looking to copy and paste for the women? Recent outrage over the Super League, Newcastle’s takeover and the relentless VAR inconsistencies (to name just a few) would suggest otherwise.