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Football: The unfairly treated sex want level pitch; Special Report: SHAMEFUL NEGLECT OF WOMEN'S SOCCER.

THE ambitious Barbie has tied her hair back, donned soccer boots, a US national team kit, and is finalising her plans for the Women's World Cup finals.

With just 60 days before kick-off, the blonde is in fine shape and has put Ken on a long lead as she aims to make the first XI.

In the US, a commemorative doll is just part of the hype for a game which has captured the imagination of the female sporting population. Some 3,000 miles from the glamourous lifestyles led by America's soccer women, the Northern Ireland squad struggles to find a kit and has to borrow one worn by an underage international boys side for a friendly match.

The game in the north has just entered a new season. Four divisions, over 600 players. One crusade.

Two weeks ago coaches Steven Calvert and Barry McGreevy successfully completed a second invitational tournament, hosting teams from England and the Republic.

The two manage the Newtownabbey Strikers club, one which could teach its male counterparts lessons in discipline, organisation and camaraderie.

The Strikers, formed in 1993, promote a strict code of conduct and endeavour to maintain a fine balance of Catholic and Protestant players.

Stamps

They constantly stamp their feet on the doorstep of the Irish Football Association. A pounds 1,000 annual grant to maintain the game is evidence of the lack of support female footballers receive in Northern Ireland.

Indeed, after several attempts to talk to one IFA official about the game and its future, the responsive nerve of the association is as supportive as its grant aid.

Steven Calvert is a member of the Northern Ireland Women's Football Association, a body affiliated to the IFA but one which is made feel like an uncomfortable wart on the hand that feeds it.

At club level, Calvert and McGreevy have brought the Newtownabbey Strikers team to a standard that has earned them a 'yuppie' tag among opposing clubs.

The players attend training in regulation gear, with logo-sporting kit bags, polo shirts and tracksuits.

Newtownabbey's Challenge C up tournament was conceived last year after the team entered the Holland Cup event.

An amateur outfit, Newtownabbey reached the final of the tournament defeating national teams from Germany and Denmark en route.

"We were hammered in the final by Thailand's national team but by the time we reached that stage, we had lost a handful of players with injuries," recalls Calvert.

"But we got there and we put Northern Ireland women's soccer on a high. When we returned we thought, why not have our own tournament".

Such is the growth in the Newtownabbey Challenge Cup, Calvert is confident it will become the female equivalent of the World famous Milk Cup event for boys, held annually in Coleraine.

Leeds University entered the competition two weeks ago along with Dublin club St Katherine's, a team made up of players from the inner city.

This year's tournament was supported by the NTL Cabletel company and players were provided with hotel accommodation, meals and entertainment.

As the final was being played out at Inver Park, home of Irish League club Larne, The Ladies Football Association of Ireland was hosting an U16 international tournament which included the US, Wales, Scotland and England.

The US team, as expected, walked away undefeated, ahead of England in second place and the Republic of Ireland, third.

Republic of Ireland players are treated much like Mick McCarthy's senior internationals.

It's been almost two years since Northern Ireland played a meaningful international game. It was against the Republic in Belfast and one which left the local girls with embarrassed flush cheeks.

"The Republic team stepped off this luxurious coach, all wearing the same tracksuits. The are treated like professionals and they respond like professionals," said Calvert.

"The Northern Ireland girls had to borrow a boys kit and then hand it back, first thing Monday morning, and an IFA official counted every shirt, short and sock.

"We wrote to the IFA to ask for four soccer balls to use in our tournament. It took a while before we received a response and we were told that we couldn't have the balls because the event was a club event. I mean, we only asked for four footballs".

In the Republic there are over 7,000 female players and the FAI has supported the massive surge in underage interest and promotes national inter-club competitions for U14s, U16s and U18s.

In 1991 the LFAI was granted a seat on the senior council of the FAI and is formally represented on the coaching, national finance, international and referees committees of the FAI's National Director of Coaching Control.

Building

Several years ago in England, the FA scrapped women's soccer for one year and implanted a building plan for the future. England is not far behind the US, Brazil and the other national governing bodies that have recognised the sport as one of the fastest growing on earth.

"America is the world leader for the game because the had the right structures in place from the start," added Calvert.

"When USA '94 was taking place, and long before that, the US federation promoted a soccer for all policy. This encouraged women to play and now the top players there can lead a comfortable lifestyle as a professionals."

Portadown girl Stacey Hall and Gail Macklin from Glengormley in Belfast were recently selected for University soccer scholarships in Mississippi.

Hall, who is considered one of the best players in Northern Ireland, was recently awarded with the a place on the Soccer Buzz First Year All- National Team. She was voted joint first Player of the Year along with Macklin, a former Post Office player.

As 16 countries prepare for the Women's World Cup at venues such as the Giants Stadium in New York, the LA Rose Bowl, Portland San Francisco, Chicago, Washington and Boston, there are signs that the IFA is preparing address the game.

Former international Mal Donaghy is being lined to take on a coaching role and recently IFA coach Shane McCullough was appointed manager.

Now the duo just have to find a squad.

In America on April 19, there was a scramble for tickets for the national team's friendly against Canada at the Civic Stadium, in a double-header supported by Olympic semi-finalists Brazil and 2000 Olympic hosts Australia.

Merchandise stalls, magazines and sports outlets are selling World Cup posters, T-shirts, necklaces', kits and of course, soccer loving Barbie.

"I would love to be over there for the finals," said Calvert.

"It would be great if there was an IFA official there to witness just how big women's soccer is.

"We are years behind because we suffer from the mentality that soccer is a man's game. It's a game for everyone and women here dream about putting on the shirt of their county and winning international caps.

There are good players here and they deserved to be treated just as the men are".

A woman's work in terms of Northern Ireland soccer, is only just beginning.
COPYRIGHT 1999 MGN LTD
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Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sport
Author:McGREEVY, Alex
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Apr 21, 1999
Words:1173
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