Women’s Football in England - Elizabeth Dann
With the Lionesses’ triumph at the 2022 Euros, it’s easy to see why women’s football is growing in popularity. After years of the men’s national team’s nearly’s and knockouts, we finally have a team who did it, and they were pretty convincing too.
The footballing schedule has been packed over the last couple of seasons, and it isn’t stopping this year. July sees the start of the Women’s World Cup which will be played across Australia and New Zealand, and we see if the Lionesses can bring it home again.
Despite the growing interest in women’s football, the start of the year hasn’t been without difficulty. The cold weather has seen multiple postponements caused by frozen pitches, even in the Women’s Super League - something largely unheard of in the men’s Premier League. While women’s football is on the up in 2023, historically there have been many challenges.
Women’s football is likely to have existed just as long as men’s, and official teams and leagues began popping up around the same time. The reception for the women’s game however, was not the same positivity as that of the men’s. Instead, press coverage ridiculed them, making sure football was seen as masculine and unladylike - sentiments that can still be seen today.
Men were strong and athletic, and the idea that women could do what the men do was rejected. Women’s bodies were supposedly unsuitable; the clothing unacceptable; and women monetising sport? Unheard of.
At the start of WW1, men’s football ground to a halt, but the enjoyment of football for those at home did not. Women began to play competitive matches again and the popularity was so great that the Football Association allowed women to train and play at the empty football grounds. A record crowd of 53,000 watched Dick Kerr ’s Ladies take on St Helen’s Ladies on Boxing Day 1920, with reports of a further 10,000 hopeful spectators being turned away!
By 1921 women’s football was everywhere - and profitable too - but the men’s teams were back and feeling threatened. Under the guise of financial misdeeds - using money raised for charity to pay players - the FA banned women’s football. A move detrimental to the women’s game.
It took until 1971 for the FA to lift the ban, and while men’s football was on an upwards trajectory of 50 years of international success, women had to start from scratch. With only recreational football available during the ban, the infrastructure the men benefitted from was nowhere to be seen.
Twenty years after the ban was lifted saw the first Women’s World Cup in 1991, the same year the Women’s Football Association launched a women’s national league. In 1993 the FA began to take an interest in the women’s game, and took over the WFA leagues; developing elite women’s football only became a priority in 1997.
From 1997 onwards the women’s game saw many successes on the pitch:
- 1999 the USA hosts the FIFA Women’s World Cup with a sold out final
- 2006 England qualify for the Women’s World Cup
- 2011 England reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup
- 2012 Team GB Women make the quarter-finals at the London Olympics
- 2014 England play their first match at Wembley Stadium
- 2015 England come third at the World Cup
- 2017 England reach the semi-finals at the European Championships
- 2019 Team GB qualify for the 2020 Olympics
- 2019 Stephanie Frappart becomes the first woman to referee a major men’s European match
- 2020 3.4 million women and girls are participating in football
- 2022 England win the European Championships
- 2022 Stephanie Frappart becomes the first woman to referee in a men’s World Cup
Off the pitch however, women still have hurdles to overcome:
The Women’s Super League only became a professional league in 2018. It took a further four years for women to receive 14 weeks of maternity cover at full salary. Alongside personal considerations, the Covid19 pandemic saw women’s leagues cancelled, while the men’s were only suspended. Even now, women’s teams very rarely play on the same pitches as the men’s teams; despite the fact both WSL and PL are deemed as elite sports.
Access issues to football for women and girls also remain. The women’s game is less well-funded, and sponsorships not nearly as lucrative. Opportunities are often less accessible as girls’ teams are less widely available.
Of course, it is hard to provide opportunities if there is no interest, but interest in women’s football can be said to show no signs of stopping. After record attendance and viewership at the 2022 European Championships, WSL games available on free to air channels and the 2023 FIFA World Cup moving games to larger stadia due to ticket demand, the future is looking bright.
The newfound appreciation for women’s football in England especially, is not without hard work from the players themselves. Recently crowned Queen of the Jungle Jill Scott shone at the Euros and is now a regular face on TV. Beth Mead became the first women’s football player to win the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year in 2022 after firing her way to the Euro 22 golden boot and is a fierce advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. Alex Scott, a retired Lioness, is now one of the most sought after matchday broadcasters in the country, with an MBE to boot. She continually proves her critics wrong: football and the industry around is not just for men.
Understandably, there is still a long way to go for women’s football, but with the FA’s commitment to women’s football, the sky is the limit. A 50-year ban left women’s football with a lot to figure out, but with one major tournament win under their belts, the Lionesses aren’t going anywhere, and nor is women’s football.
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