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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 June 2006, 09:42 GMT 10:42 UK
Are there any women here?
By Claire Heald
BBC News, Gelsenkirchen

Sarah Anderson and her family
Many women come to the World Cup with the whole family
There's much more to England's female support than the WAGS, the team's "Wives And Girlfriends". And they're here for the football, not just the spas and shopping.

Sam Forsyth is a forthright barrister and when she says she can hold her own in any conversation with another football fan, you do not argue.

A life-long Aston Villa supporter and England follower since the 1980s, she is one of an increasing number of women supporters making up the crowd.

As her partner Lee McLaughlan puts it: "She knows the rules, the laws, the players and the tactics. Anyone who tries to patronise her at a match doesn't do it for very long."

It may be a cliche, but it is one firmly rooted in truth. It is hard to imagine a more male-dominated atmosphere than England away at the World Cup.

The host city centres can look so much like a stag do, that only the men dressed in chicken suits give the real boys' weekends away.

There are large groups of men, some more unkempt as the tournament progresses. Added in is a good deal of male song, shouting and drinking.

At the ground for the game itself there are more women. And the men-women balance is more evenly balanced in Germany's hotels and campsites as families make Germany '06 their holiday.

Stag Matt Griffins and friends
Spot the stag ... dressed as a chicken

In the UK, women play football and go to club grounds in increasing numbers. But they are still well outnumbered here.

There are 4,000 female members of England's official supporters club, out of 25,000 in total. The figure has risen rapidly - up by 1,000 after Euro 2004.

The FA's Ian Murphy says: "At tournaments there's always a more diverse support. A lot of people use it as their main summer holiday, rather than travelling to Poland on a Wednesday night for one match."

Their support, he says, is one of the main factors to calm and change fans' behaviour.

Commitment

Lots of the women fans have travelled out with their other halves; some student-age supporters are in Germany with friends. A few admit they are here for a flash of the players' legs as well as one of brilliance.

But many were introduced to the game young, often by a patriarchal figure. They attend of their own accord, because of a love of the game.

It is a major commitment to take leave from work and make this journey.

Julie Nerney and her partner James
Longtime supporter Julie now enjoys watching football with her partner

Julie Nerney's eyes sparkle when she talks about her love of Aston Villa. She got together with partner James Hann while following England away, but her football support has been life-long.

"My Dad took me to Villa as a baby," she says. "I was the first-born but they were expecting a boy - they'd got football boots and everything.

"The first game I remember was against Everton, but apparently that was my 42nd game."

Her England away debut was to Italia '90, when Gazza cried. She has always felt welcome amongst the male fans.

"I'd be on a coach from Birmingham to Rome with 40 blokes, and think 'What are you doing here?' But I didn't feel out of place.

"Although some men say 'Which players' legs are you here to watch?' I don't mind staring at a good-looking man's legs, but I do object to the fact they presume that's why I'm there."

Natalie Morgan loves Everton so much she has their crest tattooed on her right shoulder.

Her father escorted her to games as a child. "And when he used to go fishing instead, the vicar used to take me," she says.

For her, being at the World Cup is the culmination of a lifetime's ambition, and having sampled it, she plans to bring son Daniel, 13.

Safety fears

So what is holding everyone else back? Despite some family holidays, the fact remains many men here left partners at home to look after the children.

Safety fears also play a part.

Scott Pearce, a Nottingham Forest fan, is in Germany with two friends. But his partner Nicola Brassington is absent - put off foreign fixtures for life after attending a 2004 England-Spain match in Madrid where police used batons on fans.

"She'll go to the home games," he says, "but won't come away again."

"It was the worst treatment I have ever seen, worse than the Poland game where there were missiles being chucked at us. She was supposed to be flying out this time, but she thought otherwise."

Natalie Morgan
Natalie Morgan says football is not just a game for men

Women fans can recount the problems they have encountered following England away - how police used batons in Rome, or when supporters were in a crush in Bratislava.

They say the way some fans congregate and chant in the city centres can be intimidating. That the racist chants and nationalist songs sung by some of the English abroad are shameful and wrong.

But they say those problems can largely be avoided, and they want women who enjoy football to come out and join them.

Natalie's male companions have left their wives at home. And they try to silence her with "Please, you can't say that. Ssh!" when she comes out with it.

But her message to the would-be football followers of her gender is short and simple. They should come to the next World Cup.

"It's not just a man's game," she says. "I think they should go for it."




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