The England Lionesses stormed into the quarter-finals of UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 last week after three group stage victories and pundits say the team could have what it takes to win the ultimate prize of the tournament.
2022 was a “breakthrough year” for women’s football, The Guardian said in early July. The change has “been brewing for a while”, now “everything is open”. Tickets for the final at Wembley on 31 July sold out in less than an hour and stadiums across England were packed with football fans who have traveled abroad to see their teams in action.
Not everyone is quick to conclude that this is the so-called “moment” of women’s football. Only “thanks to Fifa’s eccentric decision to host the men’s World Cup in Qatar this winter” has The Economist said women’s football is enjoying “a rare few weeks in the spotlight”. For more than 100 years, “sport has struggled for recognition in the face of dismissive male attitudes”.
The ban that “destroyed” the sport
The ‘golden era’ of women’s football began in World War I, according to the BBC. Women who had taken jobs in munitions factories during the war formed teams to play games and raise money for wounded soldiers – but this success was “short-lived”. Although thousands of fans filled stadiums to watch women’s matches in the years after the war ended, the FA banned women from playing football in 1921, labeling the sport ‘unsuitable for women’.
“These dictates have practically destroyed women’s football and, worse, cemented prejudices that took a long time to dispel,” said Times columnist Matthew Syed. Women continued to gamble at home, in often appalling conditions, and internationally. However, it wasn’t until 1971, 50 years later, that the ban was finally lifted.
After that it didn’t really get any easier. England’s first official Lionesses did not receive official caps from the FA after their win over Scotland in 1972, the first official international match in which both sides participated. Players paid for their own hand-made replicas instead, and some from the team have told Sam Cunningham, the i news site’s chief football correspondent, their disappointment that the FA has still not given them an official cap, especially as this year marks their 50th birthday th anniversary of this victory marked.
“It’s all very nice to say we’re pioneers, but show us,” said former right-back Maggie Pearce. “It’s frustrating and disappointing to hear all that.”
Over the past 30 years, women’s football has gained momentum and support, and the launch of the FA Women’s Super League (WSL) in 2011 was a pivotal moment in football’s professionalisation. Top players would no longer have to squeeze their training sessions alongside their full-time jobs as teachers or postal clerks – they would finally be getting a full salary for their sporting work.
Regarding the level and quality of skill of today’s women players, “one only has to look at the women’s games of the past to see the progress made and get a sense of the promise of the next quarter century,” said Syed von the Times.
The sport also got a boost from new fans. According to The Economist, “Television viewership has ‘built up’ thanks to large broadcast deals, with an average of 125,000 people tuning in to each England Women’s Super League match, according to Sky Sports. Millions will be watching this year’s Euros, the magazine continued, and “many will be inspired to take up the game”.
“It will be very good for the long-term development of women’s football.”
Syed agreed that the game’s current success “gives a hint of a future evolutionary path that I suspect will astound insiders — and confound critics.”
Have lessons been learned from the history of women’s football? Who are the new fans bringing a new wave of support to the sport? And what would it take to break down the remaining barriers that stand in the way of the sport?
In this episode of The Overview, The Week speaks to Professor Jean Williams, historian and author, Jen O’Neill, editor of She Kicks magazine, and Jenny Mitton, director at M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment.