English football: when women ruled the pitch
Once, crowds of 50,000 watched them play. Will England's European Championship final tonight spark a revival?
This evening in Helsinki, the England women's football team will play Germany – who else? – in the final of the European Championship. It is a major achievement: the men's team has not made a final since 1966, and even our women have had to wait 25 years. Yet the reaction back home has been subdued, with a meaningless friendly win over Slovenia by England's men hogging the Monday morning headlines over Jill Scott's thrilling goal to see off Holland in the women's semi-final.
The nation may be football mad, with the most high profile and richest professional men's league in the world, but when it comes to the women's game, levels of interest and support remain frustratingly scant. While Fabio Capello's men play at shiny new Wembley (rebuilt at a cost of around £800m and to a capacity of 90,000), England's women have yet to play at the national stadium, instead appearing at grounds in places such as Swindon, Colchester and Shrewsbury.
Unsuitable for females
It has not always been this way. Immediately after the first world war, the women's game was in rude health in this country. A match between the Dick, Kerr's Ladies FC, a works factory team from Preston, drew a crowd of 53,000 on Boxing Day in 1920 to watch their game against St Helen's Ladies at Everton's Goodison Park stadium – a women's attendance record that still stands today. Dick, Kerr's Ladies also played the first ever women's international matches that year against a team from France, always with large crowds. Wearing striped hats to cover their hair, players such as Lily Parr and Alice Woods became stars of the game, and earned princely sums touring France and the US.
And then, on 5 December 1921, the Football Association put an end to all that, banning women from playing on FA-affiliated pitches (effectively, all grounds with spectator facilities) with the assertion that "the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged". It is hard not to suspect this was, at least in part, a defensive move made by male officials who felt threatened by the success of their female counterparts. And so the women's game was allowed to wither on the vine, missing out on half a century of development while the men's leagues established ever stronger roots.
In 1971 the ban was finally lifted, but the game here has been fighting an uphill battle to recover its momentum ever since. Despite recent successes on the international stage, with Arsenal ladies winning the Uefa Cup in 2007 (the women's equivalent of the Champions League) and England reaching the quarter-finals of the World Cup in the same year, women's football remains an amateur and undernourished sport in this country. English domestic clubs are struggling for survival and the Women's Premier League is short on attendances (even Arsenal, the pre-eminent team today, only draw crowds in the hundreds), facilities and finance. League games are not broadcast on TV, and sponsorship is hard to come by.
For the most part, the bloated men's game seems uninterested in lending any support. With Arsenal and Chelsea high-profile exceptions, many of the richest men's clubs have allowed their women's teams to fall by the wayside – Manchester United, Birmingham City, Charlton, Bristol City and Fulham Ladies have all folded or struggled when the men's club cut off financial support.
No wonder, then, that every England player interviewed ahead of tonight's final has talked about wanting to win as a means of promoting the women's game. "We want to do well for women's football," says Katie Chapman, England's midfield dynamo and full-time mother of two. "As an international team, we need to do well to get the game noticed and publicised. Us getting to the final now will hopefully bring the game forward. It's not just about us, it's about grassroots and the next generation."
If the Football Association is culpable for invoking that highly damaging ban in 1921, it has, since assuming responsibility for the women's game in 1993, made significant inroads and investment into promoting it. The introduction of central contracts for senior England players has helped some of the women to make ends meet, but at just £16,000 a year – which equates to a day's wages for some of England's top male players - the sums are still tiny.
The government must also accept responsibility for the women's game's lack of development: a Sport England report in 2002 found that only 13% of girls had access to football coaching in schools, and an FA report in 2007 concluded that 52% of girls in England have had no experience of playing football, while 331,000 girls who have only ever played in a "kickabout" wanted to have the opportunity to join a team.
It is easy to blame predominantly male institutions for this, but as one Guardian blogger commented, "Women don't support women's sport - why should men?" Sweeping generalisations aside, there's something in that.
But whoever is to blame, our failure to promote women's and girls' football in an age where women and girls are struggling with their body image, health, and confidence seems plain foolish. And if you are casting about for positive female role models, you need look no further than the pitch this evening.
Juggling a playing career with careers off the pitch, the team includes a lawyer, a PE teacher, a motivational speaker and Chapman, mother to Harvey, six, and Riley, 13 months. "When I'm not home Mark [my husband] looks after the boys so he's given me a lot of support. I think I'm at the best level I've ever been and it's to do with confidence and maturity. I'm older, wiser, and a lot more experienced."
Anita Asante, England's central defender, is one of five English players who left domestic football in this country to play professional football in America at the start of the Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) league in April. At the time there was an outcry about a drain of talent overseas, but Asante says the experience has made her a better player and has contributed to England's success in the Euros. "We have been learning what it is to be a professional footballer," she says, marvelling at the luxury of being able to train full-time. "We know how to manage ourselves better as athletes. We see the game more in a professional light whereas in England we had only amateur status."
A chance to shine
The new American league has achieved crowds of between 4,000-6,000. "That shows there is an audience interested in the game. I don't see why that wouldn't be possible in England – we're a football culture," says Asante.
Last year the FA introduced a new four-year strategy hoping to precipitate further changes. The School-Club Link Programme was set up to encourage a relationship between schools and extra-curricular girls' football, and targets to create new girls' and women's teams were introduced and are being met. A women's summer league – to give the sport its own platform without having to compete for attention with the men's game – is planned for 2011, and the boost of an England women's team being able to play at the Olympics in 2012 will provide yet more opportunity for the sport to shine.
"We as players understand it's a process and it takes time," says Asante, "We know nothing happens overnight. We just hope that the game continues to develop. Who knows, maybe one day we will have a professional league here in England too."
I have to admit to not following the women's NTs much at all but I do try to follow WPS as much as possible (too bad my team sucks...). I'd love to see more recognition for female athletes but there's still a long way and sadly a lot of apathy towards women's football. It was really interesting to see this historical side of things though. What do you all think?