In July 2017, Toni Duggan – a forward for the England Women’s football team - made headlines when she completed a transfer from Manchester City to FC Barcelona, becoming the first English person to play for the Catalan club since Gary Lineker.
Later that summer, she and the rest of her international teammates would propel The Lionesses to a semi-final finish at the Women’s Euros – losing out to eventual winners and hosts, the Netherlands. Duggan’s case is reflective of a larger change in the perception of women’s football across not just England but the world. People recognise names like Duggan, Hope Solo (the former US national team goalkeeper) and Marta (the prolific Brazilian footballer) more often than they used to. And while there is still some way to go for women’s football before they become household names, the ball has been set rolling and it doesn’t look like it will come to a halt any time soon.
A Professional Game
The first step in solving any problem is recognising that there is one. That the women’s game was not professionalised for a long time remains true but various countries and clubs have recognised the issue and are now moving to bring the game on par with the men’s game – a fact recognised by many players themselves. When American forward Alex Morgan signed for Olympique Lyonnais (arguably the most successful women’s team) she said, "They are committed to growing women’s soccer and provide … first-class facilities and an unparalleled training environment on par with the men’s team." In fact, Lyon have won the last twelve league seasons and five Champions League titles including the latest one following a 4-1 win over Germany’s VFL Wolfsburg – another highly successful women’s club.
Closer to home, the FA’s Women’s Super League is running for the first time in its history with 11 fully professional teams. Yes, the decision triggered a lot of reactions from the teams – both positive and negative – but it is undeniably a step in the right direction. Adding to this is the establishment (re-establishment would probably be the right word to use) and investment in the women’s team by Manchester United – one of the world’s most successful teams in the men’s game. Both the quality and the quantity of the investment by the Red Devils attracted lot of attention with several England internationals (including captain and left back Alex Greenwood) among the new arrivals.
Development of the Game at All Levels
In a report entitled "The Gameplan For Growth – The FA’s Strategy for Women’s and Girls’ Football 2017-2020", Greg Clarke, the chairman of the FA says "For the vast majority of the last 150 years, the focus has been almost exclusively on the men’s game. But times, societies and attitudes move on and we have been too slow to react." The women’s game has come by leaps and bounds over the last few years in England – a fact reflected in two successive semi-final appearances at major tournaments.
The establishment of St. George’s Park (a system like Clairefontaine in France) as a training base for all England teams – including the women – has helped in its development. Licensed, professional coaches across the senior competitions as well as the above mentioned professionalisation of the women’s game has added to the protocol for success. The path forward now requires more involvement from the community and from the county FAs, schools and other entities on a grassroots level to provide a constant pipeline of talented players coming through the system – who can then one day play for England. Clarke, in the same report, mentions that countries like America and Germany developed the women’s game while England "watched on." This, however, has begun to change and will continue to change by the looks of it.[pullquote]Women’s football in England and in pretty much every country across the world still has a long way to go.[/pullquote]
Support from The Men’s Game
Another aspect of women’s football is how the clubs and in particular those with well-established men’s teams view it. And as a corollary, it is linked to how society in general viewed women’s football. The men’s game was always the popular one, the one with more money and the one people wanted to see. Much like the WNBA (and by extension, women’s basketball), women’s football was often considered inferior to the men’s game.
However, with changing times, clubs have started to recognise the importance of the women’s game – from a sporting as well as a non-sporting perspective. Take the example of Manchester United again. When disbanding the erstwhile club back in 2005, Phillip Townsend, the then director of communications said, "our resources are better deployed at the level of school-age children rather than adults." Thirteen years later, while applying for licence to join the professional football system in the country, Manchester United’s statement read "The Manchester United women's team must be built in the same image and with the same principles as the men's first team and offer academy players a clear route to top level football within the club."
Clubs have also begun investing in women’s football to improve their stature in the game. FC Barcelona, for example, were in discussions with America’s National Women’s Soccer League to see if they could establish a team in the States while England’s Manchester City have turned to their own women’s team in order to fulfil their ambitions of being a powerhouse in both men’s and women’s football – somewhat like Lyon and Wolfsburg. The importance of women’s football, in the eyes of the bigger clubs in the men’s game, is increasing and that can only be a good thing.
Women’s football in England and in pretty much every country across the world still has a long way to go. The next stage for the women’s game would involve investment and returns. With more and more corporate involvement within the game, it is perhaps reasonable to expect that the sport will grow at all levels – from recreational to professional. Girls playing the game from a young age, women involving themselves in various aspects of the game like refereeing and coaching, as well as establishing a sustainable pyramid of progression from childhood to adulthood is imperative in furthering the sport.
Participation of the public cannot however, just be restricted to playing, refereeing or coaching the game. Interest in the game from the general public must also increase as a result of various measures- such as promoting women’s football through social media among other things. There are encouraging signs, with the 2017 Women’s Champions League final between Lyon and PSG being watched by more than 20,000 spectators at the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff, while Manchester United’s 2-0 loss to Reading recently saw over 5,000 people in attendance. The 2015 Women’s World Cup – and specifically the final between USA and Japan – in Canada broke previous viewership records for that tournament.
And finally, all this investment must lead to a tangible end point – results on the pitch. The success of the 1999 US Women’s National Team in the World Cup and the two good tournaments in 2015 and 2017 from the English national team helped grow the game in these nations. It is a vicious cycle of investment and success with each relying on the other to a large degree to grow the game of football among a section of population that has, for far too long, been neglected by the authorities that be.
Women’s football has long been a bystander to the men’s game – neglected and even unfairly treated (something reflected in the US Womens team protesting for equal pay). But times are changing for the good and so is the beautiful game.