The Rise, Fall & Rise of Women’s Football

Inside London’s iconic Wembley stadium last weekend, football fans banged on their seats and cheered themselves hoarse as an LED board flickered into life, announcing a new attendance record of 87,192. It was the final night of the Women’s Euros 2022, and it became the highest-attended match – men’s or women’s – in European Championship history.

That match, which saw England beat Germany 2-1, will live forever in the record books. Across England, there are billboards celebrating the über-talented team, affectionately known as the Lionesses. Their historic victory marked what looks to be a turning point in women’s football history. Records are being smashed. Perceptions are being changed. Women are getting the long-overdue recognition they deserve. But it’s been a long, hard slog to get here.

The history of women’s football is generally traced back to 1869. This was the year that Harper’s Bazaar published a watercolor painting titled Girls of The Period – Playing Ball. It’s exactly what it sounds like – a handful of women in elaborate, tiered dresses and waistcoats jostling for control of a ball. It’s likely a depiction of a friendly kick-about, but the painting is proof of women playing football as early as the 19th century.

The next few decades saw the formation of women’s football teams in unlikely places. Factory workers regularly banded together to form teams, but the most famous example comes from Preston, England. In 1917, women workers at the Dick, Kerr & Co. factory, which produced military ammunition throughout World War I, started playing football against the male workers on their lunch breaks. The women won. Spurred on by this success, they formed Dick, Kerr Ladies F.C. later that year.

Even their earliest games attracted thousands of fans, but by the end of 1920, they’d set a mammoth attendance record of 53,000 for their match against St. Helens, and won 4-0.

This success drew attention – but soon after, backlash. In 1921, the Football Association (FA) enforced a ban on women’s football, which lasted 50 years.

According to Katie Mishner, a writer whose work is featured in the anthology, Football She Wrote, the reason behind the ban was simple. “It was due to the growing success of women’s football,” she tells me. “It posed a threat to the men’s game.” This wasn’t the official line, of course – instead, the FA claimed football was “unsuitable for women” and “should not be encouraged.” In an era notoriously restrictive of women’s liberties, the subtext is obvious.

Women’s football went on unofficially in England, but the damage was done. “From that point on, the lack of investment and visibility continued to play a major role in how women’s football is viewed,” Mishner explains. “People compare it to men’s football, which has consistently had more investment in coaching, facilities, and wages. How can you expect it to be the same when the playing field hasn’t been level for over a century?”

Across the world, female football supporters took action. In 1970, Italy hosted an unofficial Women’s World Cup comprising eight teams. The following year, Mexico City staged a wildly successful follow-up. Held just 14 months after the 1970 World Cup Final, which also took place in Mexico, the event was backed by big-name sponsors and promoted as a huge event. Investors threw cash behind a cartoon mascot named Xochitl, a young, pigtailed girl whose image was splashed across enamel pins, badges, cups, and pretty much every other form of merchandise imaginable. The tournament exceeded all expectations – the grand final, which saw Denmark crowned as the winning team, was reportedly attended by a whopping 110,000 fans.

There’s long been a demand for women’s football, but the last decade in particular has seen a notable growth spurt, largely due to the work of grassroots initiatives. In 2016, FIFA made grassroots funding mandatory, and shortly afterwards, appointed its first Chief Women’s Football Officer, Sarai Bareman. “There’s been a growth in professionalism, which has helped the game progress massively in terms of quality and standard,” says Rachel Corsie, a defender for Aston Villa Women’s Football Club. “With a push on equality, the media has helped to give the game greater stature, too. Players have become household names, and attendances continue to grow.”

Corsie also stresses the importance of revenue growth and commercial sponsors. Globally, the football industry is buoyed by big-name sponsors – it’s why top players command eye-watering salaries. By contrast, it’s long been commonplace for pro women footballers to work a second job. In fact, the FA only started paying a full-time salary to every woman in the top league in 2018.

When Gym + Coffee announced its partnership with Aston Villa Women’s Football Club earlier this year, they pledged to invest in the industry from the ground up. “Public interest in women’s sport has risen significantly because of a grassroots movement which has bubbled to the surface in recent years,” explains co-founder Niall Horgan. “We wanted to become part of that.” This doesn’t just mean slapping a logo on a football kit. It means creating scholarships for women in sport, hiring ambassadors like Corsie, and reiterating that women’s football is a worthwhile investment.

Misogyny is not the only thing holding women back — it’s discrimination of all kinds. In 2017, footballer Eni Aluko discussed the racism she experienced throughout her career, most notably at the hands of former England manager, Mark Sampson, and was booted from the squad for speaking up. There’s even a lack of diversity in this year’s Women’s Euros, which isn’t going unnoticed. “There are only three non-white players in England’s 23-person squad,” Mishner points out. “Diversifying who gets to represent their country is crucial for sustained change; it’s about young people being able to see themselves in the squad.”

As for trans women, there’s some progress being made on a grassroots level – the history-making existence of TRUK, an all-trans women’s squad, is proof. Yet any move to make the football industry more trans-inclusive is immediately met with conservative backlash.

These conversations are important. If the women’s football industry is to keep growing, it’s key to question who’ll benefit from this growth. Will it be wide swathes of women, or only the most privileged?

Mishner suggests a handful of solutions, including more talent coaching in schools worldwide. “Talent coaching is how the game continues to grow in quality, but it’s also how footballers from every background get an opportunity to shine,” she says. Visibility and exposure are other crucial factors to push for progress, as are accessible venues and a willingness by everyone to call out the bullshit notion that “women can’t play football.”

Even a brief glimpse at sports history proves there’s always been an appetite for women in sport. It’s just been suppressed by organizations who saw them as a threat, and wasted no time deeming them “unsuitable” players. “I’m not even sure many people know about the history of women’s football,” Corsie says. “That shows how it’s been disregarded by the media. Looking back at the history puts into context the essential need for a fight.”

The Euros are definitive proof that players across Europe are more than happy to come out swinging, fighting as hard as ever to prove their worth. If the buzz surrounding this tournament is any indication, their efforts are finally paying off.

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