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(Women’s) football: the past, the present and hopes for the future

It’s come home! But maybe not in the way Baddiel, Skinner or the Lightning Seeds initially imagined when they released their 1996 single ‘Three Lions’. The line “thirty years of hurt” of course refers to the iconic England men’s win in the 1966 World Cup Final at Wembley Stadium against Germany. However, in 1966, when this game was won, the men  were just considered The England Team, as there was no other team: the English Football Association had banned women from playing on Football League grounds.

In a story I’m sure rings familiar for many women, despite record-breaking crowds for women’s football matches during and after World War I (53,000 people watched a Boxing Day match in 1920), to accommodate returning male players, the FA banned women playing, ruling the game “unsuitable for females”. It was not until 1971 (5 years after it first came home…or I suppose the home location of football was officially established?) that the FA lifted the ban on women playing and 1972 that the first official international match was played by England women.

Since then, it has been a tumultuous journey for women’s football and professional female footballers. The first national women’s league is established at the beginning of the 1990s and across this decade funding and investment began to be made in earnest into grassroots and elite performance in the game. The WSL (Women’s Super League) begins in 2011 and by the 2010s interest and skill levels in women’s football is improving at a rapid rate. Reaching the quarter finals of the World Cup and the London 2012 Olympics, the general popularity of women’s football begins to grow. In 2017, the team reach the semi-finals of the Euros as well as in 2019, where their defeat by the USA (the winners of the tournament) was watched by 11.7 million viewers on BBC One – a record.

Despite these changes, interest in women’s football has still historically been quite low. Unlike in other sports, women’s football has previously struggled to capture widespread public interest or imagination.

And with that brief but hectic timeline (missing, as I’m sure you will know, many interesting and possibly frustrating events in British women’s football history), this brings me to this year. Winning their first group match against Austria in the 2022 UEFA Euros at Old Trafford on the 6th of July 1-0 with a beautiful goal from Beth Mead, England women’s team were already breaking tournament records by playing in front of a crowd of 68,871. And it all seemed to grow from there.

Winning the quarter finals in an absolute nail biter against Spain and despite a tense start against Sweden, the 4-0 victory in the semi-finals confirmed that it might in fact be on its way home. This excitement seemed to generate a social energy that had not been seen before in women’s football. Wembley was sold out and the jaw dropping total of 87,192 spectators smashed the record of largest crowd ever in Euros history – with 17.4 million additional viewers confirmed by the BBC.

This interest and passion for the women’s game has never been seen before and Leah Williamson, captain of the winning Lionesses stated, “women’s football and society has changed”. Well…that is definitely the hope! But what does this actually look like?

First, for football. Women’s football is underfunded, under-appreciated and under respected as a discipline. Football finance expert Kieran Maguire estimates that the earnings in women’s football is on par to the winnings for the champions of the 1966 World Cup. The salary differential is only compounded by the discrepancy of sponsorship deals. In 2015, only 0.4% of all corporate investment spent on sport went into women’s teams.

Putting money aside, there are other difficulties and differences with the women’s game. Only four premier League grounds accepted the opportunity to host Euro 2022 matches in their stadiums: Manchester United’s Old Trafford, Southampton’s St Mary’s Stadium, Brighton’s Famer Stadium and Brentford’s Community Stadium. Manchester City generously offered their 7,000 capacity Academy Station training stadium.

What about wider change? This is harder to quantify of course. After Emma Radacanu’s win in the US Open, it is estimated that 100,000 British people took up tennis in the two months following. So, what could this win do? Hopefully, it changes the face of football, as I’ve explored above. Players should be better funded and supported to bring them on par with the men’s teams. Additionally, grassroots funding should be prioritised as the hope of inspiring young girls to love the game seems to have become a reality.

In terms of wider impact, football is the national sport of England but is still overwhelmingly seen as a boy’s sport. The overwhelming evidence that women can in fact play football – and that it is in no way a less interesting or less skilful version of the game – should not be news! The crowd composition at a football game is still overwhelmingly male (as I can confirm watching Man U vs Brighton the other week and the guys sitting next to me said they ‘wouldn’t cuss because there was a lady there’…thanks I guess) and some of the culture surrounding the games is  still quite uncomfortable. The interest women are taking in the game will hopefully go some way to shifting this.

Casual watchers of this year’s Euros may be thinking ‘this has come out of nowhere’. I get that. Interest, support, strong passionate sentiments of support from prominent individuals – that is recent. But the level of success, professionalism, grit, and determination that has been displayed by the Lionesses is certainly not. This has come out of decades of women playing without financial support, without sponsorship, with poor injury recovery support, poor management, pitches, and facilities  – and keeping going anyway! As Alex Scott tearfully said after the victory match: “I’m not standing up at corporate events in front of sponsors anymore begging for them to get involved in the women’s game because you know what? If you’re not involved, you’ve missed the boat, you’ve missed the train. Because look at this… it has finally left the station and it is gathering speed.”

Image credit: CC-BY-SA-4.0

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