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Opinion & Analysis

Women’s Football has arrived (finally)

Photo by Zac Goodwin/PA Wire.

By Rebecca Calderon

In the future we’ll look back and say “When did women’s football really become a thing?”

Some people will say the inaugural World Cup tournament in 1991, English fans will say 2022 when their team won the Euros, but the majority will cite the FIFA 2023 Women's World Cup as the ultimate turning point.

Jointly hosted by Australia and New Zealand with an expanded format of 32 teams, replicating the men's World Cup, detractors warned that ‘nobody would watch it’ due to morning kick-off times.

Notwithstanding fans are based in all time zones, those Europe-centric naysayers were all wrong.

With the ability to watch on-the-go via a phone and on the radio, people were tuning in at all hours. Australian coverage of their semi-final reached 11.15m people, close to half the country's population, it was the most watched TV event in Australian history.

I started to watch women’s football in 2011 when Hope Powell was the England manager. The World Cup was being broadcast on television for the first time which enabled me to get involved, up until then women’s football and its players had been invisible.

As the saying goes; “If You Can See It, You Can Be It” and the BBC showing match build-up, punditry, interviews etc. opened up a whole new sphere of female sporting knowledge and entertainment.

My brother and I watched the entire 2015 World Cup and started to find out who was who in the world of women’s football, and when Mark Sampson took England’s women to the semi-final things began to get very exciting.

In the Phil Neville era England won the 2019 SheBelieves Cup and reached the semi-final of the 2019 World Cup only to be knocked out by the mighty USA with the likes of Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, brilliant superstar players.

Sarina Wiegman arrived in 2021 and within her first year the Lionesses had lifted the Euros trophy. The Wembley final was watched by a crowd of 87,192, a record for either the men's or women's European Championship, millions watched it on TV.

It’s worth noting that women’s football has dragged itself to where it is today in spite of huge barriers and closed doors. Women began to play football at the same time as men but in 1921 the FA banned them from playing; the committee openly expressed their distaste at the women’s game stating it was “…quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged.”

The ban had a devastating effect. League football clubs barred female players from their pitches, and referees were banned from officiating at women’s matches. The sport became unsustainable, effectively destroying the credibility the women’s game had built up. The ban on English women’s football wasn’t lifted by the FA until 1971, by which time it had done severe damage which would take generations to heal; England did not have a fully professional women’s football league until 2018. With all that in mind, and similar situations across the women’s game worldwide, it’s remarkable how things have rapidly progressed despite dreadful discrimination.

When I was at school there were plenty of sports for girls to take part in but never football. It was shockingly the same for my daughter and she was born in 1994! In 2022 only 63% of British girls could play football in school PE lessons and demands came for change.

Politicians and decision-makers are finally starting to listen but England’s female football team had to lift a trophy in order to be heard. A review was commissioned in September 2022 by the UK government and former England player Karen Carney led an expert panel.

The conclusion was a set of 10 recommendations, starting with fully professionalising the Women’s leagues, calling for wholesale change across the game, and ending on the right for girls to play football in schools.

Female Football Mania is now upon us. Both the BBC and ITV (after a bit of prodding) have covered every game of this summer’s tournament in great detail. Seeing women presenters in the studio, pitch-side and hearing them commentate is very refreshing.

Some men have remarked to me “How come women get to pundit the men’s games but the men can’t do the same for the women’s games?”

Actually, men do, notably Ian Wright and the Arsenal manager Jonas Eidevall. There are very few men who know enough about the women’s game as they have never taken an interest, whereas there are many women presenters who know all about both. That is the difference.

You cannot have token male pundits to even things up if they aren’t knowledgeable enough to debate the issues.
The 2023 Women’s World Cup has delivered stunning goals and shocking upsets, it has kept fans gripped and on the edge of their seats. People (mainly men) who vowed never to watch are now naming players and describing their on-pitch prowess. The standard of football has improved dramatically over the last ten years; it used to be sluggish, slow and not very exciting. Matches lacked atmosphere and sounded like Covid Football due to low spectator numbers.

Things have changed and for the first time ever, I have a wall chart up (which I had to find on the internet and print out myself). The final was a showcase of thrilling football action with the mighty Spain, against all adversity, standing resolute against England and winning the ultimate prize.

Sad it’s all over? Don’t be! On the 21st September the inaugural season of the UEFA Women's Nations League begins; the female game is only just beginning…

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