“Football is all very well as a game for rough girls, but it is hardly suitable for delicate boys.” So said Oscar Wilde. If the women’s game continues to develop at the pace witnessed during the past decade, this observation could soon gain common currency.
Since 1999, when the FA committed itself to make it the most popular female sport in the country, the number of girls playing football has increased by a massive 88 per cent. There are now 36,000 girls and 19,000 women playing regularly – only 2,000 short of the numbers playing netball. This growth reflects a global trend. In 1995, FIFA general secretary Sepp Blatter predicted that by 2010 there would be as many women playing football as men. “The future is feminine,” he said, and maybe he even believed it.
Women have been kicking balls for more than 100 years. The only reason the women’s game is not as lauded as the men’s at the beginning of the 21st century is because of the obstacles thrown in its path during the 20th. In 1921 the FA banned “unsuitable” women’s teams from using men’s league grounds, despite – or perhaps because of – the growing popularity of the women’s game. During the First World War, attendances at women’s games began to outstrip those at men’s matches. On Boxing Day 1920, 53,000 watched Dick Kerr’s Ladies, munition factory workers from Preston, beat St Helen’s Ladies 4-0 at Goodison Park. It was another 50 years before the FA gave in to pressure from UEFA and lifted the ban.
It’s easy to forget how far women’s football has come in a short time in this country. It was only a decade ago that a national league was created, and the ban lifted on mixed football for Under-11s in schools. The resulting explosion in the number of girls playing will soon mean more and better players for the senior game.
In 1992 there were 450 women’s teams and 12,000 registered players. Ten years on there are 700 clubs and 19,000 registered players. There is still a long way to go to catch up with the United States, where a professional league is already established, and Germany, where there are 700,000 women players. Despite these obstacles, the women’s game is now making solid progress. The FA took over the running of women’s football in 1993 and is now fully committed to the creation of a professional league by 2003.
In 2000, Fulham Ladies were the first women’s team to turn professional, winning all 20 matches last season and scoring 196 goals as a direct result of improvements in fitness and technical ability gained through full-time training. Their FA Cup final against Arsenal at Selhurst Park attracted a crowd of 14,000. Fulham chairman Mohamed Al Fayed funds the non-sponsored team out of his own pocket, a situation which may not last forever, but others are prospering on their own account. Doncaster Belles receive the highest level of sponsorship in the women’s game, and will be the first club to get their own ground, despite being independent of any men’s outfit.
The establishment of academies and centres of excellence should help stem the flow of promising players going to the US or Europe. As well as 34 centres offering professional coaching, there is now a unique scholarship programme for England senior squad players at Loughborough University
When the eight-club professional league is established next year the women’s game will gain greater recognition and support, and start to generate its own stars. Big name sponsorship and television coverage should follow. The Women’s FA Cup and international games have been televised for years. The Women’s World Cup final in 1999 was attended by 90,000 and watched by an estimated audience of one billion around the world. The BBC is to televise the 2002 women’s FA Cup final live.
A professional league, coupled with the growing number of girls playing football at school, will lead to more young women continuing to play after school and a loyal fan base being built from an early age. Here’s to the first million-pound rated player in the women’s game. Carloyne Culver
Whether we like it or not, we are going to have a professional women’s league in England. It may start in 2003, or 2004; perhaps in the winter and quite possibly in the summer. Leaving aside the fact that no one – the FA included – knows at this stage how it will work, no one, equally, seems certain that it is even what they want.
Charlton are one of the Premiership’s most ambitious sides. They are believed to operate on an annual budget of around £80,000. To put this into context, the likes of Liverpool must be grateful for the free diesel the club gives them, Birmingham Ladies have recently been charged nearly £5,000 for kit by their parent club and Manchester United’s women have this season paid a £25 bond towards their team tracksuits. Charlton’s players are meant to believe that they have never had it so good. And yet when social politics led to the exodus of seven squad members last month, many of them were wistfully harking back to the more amateur days of their previous incarnation, Croydon Women.
One player was said to be bemoaning the fact that her trademark bandana had been deemed inconsonant with the image of professionalism the club was striving to promote. Another missed being able to take her family with her on the team bus. That both were England internationals suggests that the amateur heart beats fervently even at the very highest level of the game.
And what will become of all the amateurs once professionalism dawns – the midwife who doubles as press officer at one Northern Division club; the special needs teacher who is marketing manager at another; the dedicated mothers and fathers who drive minibuses and bake post-match cakes to sustain their daughters’ efforts? There may be no room for them at the top end of the game. Professionalism, the FA has made clear, is not just about putting a squad of players on salaries. It’s about building the right infrastructure.
Coaches must be qualified, administrators full-time. Even after the first phase of the FA’s feasability study ends in January, when some of the practical issues of staging a newly professional sport should have been addressed, there will remain the question of whether or not the game is good enough to sustain a professional season.
The Arsenal manager Vic Akers used the press conference following his side’s 1-0 victory over Fulham in last season’s FA Cup final to contest the FA’s plans. The game, he argued, wasn’t ready for professionalism. No one, he said, had yet indicated where all the money was coming from. In his opinion, the product itself was five to ten years away from fruition. You don’t have to look far to find others saying the same thing. For every Kelly Smith or Angela Banks there are hundreds for whom Sunday afternoons, like Saturday nights, are about being sociable.
True, this is the fastest growing sport in Europe and, yes, the launch of endless academies, centres of excellence, even phone lines offering advice to stars of the future, suggest that within five years the game will be much improved. But there are still no guarantees that anyone will want to watch it. The WUSA professional women’s league in the US in its inaugural season might have attracted crowds to rival the men’s MLS, but the States has no tradition of football as a male preserve.
And for those who point to the fact that nearly 14,000 turned up to Selhurst Park for last season’s FA Cup final, it is worth noting that when Arsenal played their final match of the season a fortnight later – at home to Doncaster Belles, a side familiar with the rudiments of generating publicity – they did so at Highbury in front of a crowd of around 400, most of them friends and family.
Next year could be the last season of an amateur Premiership. And just to get us all in the mood, the amateur league will include – and this is a certainty – newly promoted Fulham, the UK’s only professional side. The game will enjoy more media attention than ever before. But what the watching world will see is an uncompetitive league in which a professional side is able to wipe the floor with all its opponents. Just when the sport needs to convince us of its credibility, its only professional exponent could endanger that very process. Harriet Watkins
From WSC 180 February 2002. What was happening this month