Eighty years ago, the establishment of a professional women’s football league in this country was simply unthinkable. Having been banned by the FA and with no funding, the vision looked to be a bleak one. Fast-forward to 2011 and this once seemingly impossible vision has come to be realized in the form of the WSL and it is one being embraced by an increasing number of women of all ages and ability. Whilst the game lacks the glitz and glamour of its male counterparts, it is gaining recognition from around the world and in turn helping women to find a balance between work and play.
Women’s football has been established in England for more than a century, and yet it has only been since the turn of the 1990s that the game really evolved. Up till then, women’s football remained detached from the wider FA, with the Women’s FA left to organize their own football in the UK. The watershed moment eventually came in the 1990s when the FA, having come to recognise the growing emergence of the women’s form of the game, took the decision to administer both the men’s and women’s game under the wider FA umbrella. Since then, the women’s game hasn’t looked back. Just over a month ago, the FA released figures relating to the growth of the game in the UK. The figures are impressive on both a local and national scale. Of the 2.1 million children participating in The FA Tesco Skills Programme, 42% are girls, whilst 106 of the Skills Coaches are females. In fact, there are now over 23,000 women coaches who have achieved a Level 1-5 Coaching badge. On the playing side of things, the figures show a consistent increase in the number of female youth teams being formed – 6,461 in the 2009-2010 season in comparison to 6,027 in the previous season. The effects of these initiatives and enthusiasm have, more importantly, had a hugely positive effect on the national team.
In recent years, the ‘Three Lionesses’, as they are known, have come on leaps and bounds, so much so that they are now being talked about as one of the favourites for this year’s World Cup taking place in Germany. Whilst the U19s have reached the European Championship Final on three of the last four occasions, lifting the trophy in 2009 in Belarus, the senior team have followed suit, reaching the quarter-finals of the last World Cup and the final of the 2009 European Championships in Finland, eventually losing out to Germany. Such has been the rise of the women’s national game on the global stage, that – contrary to many reports – two Englishwomen were nominated for awards at last year’s Ballon D’Or – star striker Kelly Smith for the women’s World Player of the Year and England national team coach, Hope Powell, for women’s Coach of the Year. More importantly the FA has, since 2009, placed seventeen England players on central contracts – essentially enabling them to work part-time whilst simultaneously allowing for more training. Arsenal Ladies, despite being one of the most successful teams in England, only usually train for just two evenings a week! The four-year deal which will be renewed annually will see players paid from a pot worth £1.28 million and will be governed by the Women’s and Girls Football Strategy, established in 2008. With over 50 FA Centres of Excellence in existence across the UK for talented girls, the start of the inaugural professional FA WSL in April marks a new goal for young players coming into the sport to aim for.
The FA’s WSL marks a watershed moment for the women’s game in this country. In establishing the league, the FA has very much modelled itself on leagues in Holland and Germany, in particular, where the women’s form of the game has grown. Whilst the stadiums used will be small-capacity ones, it is the pricing initiative of the games which is the most pleasing to read about. Tickets will be priced at £5 for adults and £3 for children, with the focus being on creating a family atmosphere, filling the grounds as well as attracting younger faces to the game. From a players’ perspective, the stand-out feature is that players from the eight teams will be paid for the very first time. A salary cap has been set, whereby only four players per club will earn more than £20,000 a year – something which the FA hopes will ensure an even distribution of talent throughout the league. It therefore means a chance to give up ones day job and to instead concentrate on ones real passion – football. However, what the establishment of the WSL signifies, above all, is what the women’s game has been craving for for many years now – recognition through television coverage. The league, running from April to August, will see games televised live on EPSN who will also provide a weekly 30-minuts highlights show. Although no income will be received as a result of the coverage, the FA will not be expected to cover the production costs for ESPN – something of a rarity in women’s sport. Nonetheless, fears of foreign imports coming into the game and players being lured abroad by larger salaries remain.
Whilst the dream that was once held by women playing football around the country of being able to earn money by playing football, has now been realized, the blunt truth is that several top English players, including Kelly Smith, have already been lured to move to the USA to join the Women’s Professional Soccer League, albeit it before the establishment of the WSL. For the record, an average seven-month contract for a woman footballer in the USA is worth £24,000. Of course, money is not their sole motivation however there’s no doubt that it is certainly an important factor. Smith herself, on her move to the Boston Breakers, was quoted as saying that “it was not just about money, it’s about playing with and against the best players in the world, training every day and everything else about being a professional footballer”. The FA will hope that the WSL will help to stem this tide, albeit a small one. And whilst some move to pastures new, there is a familiar cry from the Barclays Premier League which is already beginning to ring in the WSL circles – that of the influx of foreign internationals into the game. Some teams, such as Chelsea and Doncaster Belles, have already imported foreign players whilst others, for example Lincoln, have expressed their intention to follow in their footpaths. Whilst it may be proving difficult for some teams to find players of the necessary quality needed for the league, it is hoped that the WSL will come to modernize the development of English players and thus create a bright future for women’s football in this country.
Despite significant developments made by the women’s game in recent years, the reality is that much more still needs to be done in order to raise the game’s profile. A large chunk of this can be attributed to the failure of the FA to capture the public’s imagination. In Germany, the women’s Bundesliga has attracted a great deal of support and popularity and even our friends across the pond have shown more support for the game, that despite supposedly having no real footballing tradition as such. Indeed, whilst the 2009 European Championships attracted some television coverage, the game largely remains confined to small column inches in newspaper sports section. Nonetheless, a great deal of credit should be given to The Guardian Newspaper, in particular, whose devotion to covering Women’s Football in this country is very pleasing to see. Although criticism has been levelled at the game by some who believe that the quality is no way near that of the men’s game in relation to speed, athleticism and, above all, technique, there is still plenty of time for that to improve. The view held by many within the game is that within a short space of time, the game will come to be able to hold its own and thus no longer need to rely on financial support from the FA. However, regardless of the length of time taken for the game to evolve, if it helps to raise the profile to younger girls and women across the country thus increasing standards within the game and creating a wider pool of players to choose from, then the WSL would have already played a huge role in the development of the women’s game in this country.
It’s incredible to think that whilst football remains by far and away the most popular participatory sport for women in the UK, its icons remain virtually unheard of. Although the WSL is a fresh, innovate idea, it is perhaps too late a reaction to the already well established professional leagues abroad. Whilst the WSL is the pinnacle of what has been achieved by the game here in the UK, challenges still remain ahead. The challenge for women’s football is to find its very own role-model and answer to Athletics’ Jessica Ennis, Cycling’s Victoria Pendleton, Rowing’s Rebecca Romero and Swimming’s Rebecca Adlington. This form of the game though, unlike its male counterpart, is free of agents and lavish lifestyles and instead played by those whose sole motivation is for the love of the game itself – something many can aspire to. Move over boys, it is very much time for women’s hour!