Ladies’ Football: The Oh-So-Beautiful Game

August 1, 2012 in Features, International, Olympics

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For 50 years up until 1971, women’s football had been banned by the FA. Deemed a rival to the men’s game, it was decided that ladies should not be allowed to compete on the grounds of FA member clubs. The game, which had been flourishing up until the ban came in, faced its first major setback in terms of progress, and as we now see, in the way the general public still perceive the sport.

My first taste of a live women’s football match came in 2010. Arsenal Ladies were playing in Watford; I arrived with an open mind and the £1 entrance fee in my wallet. An incredible value for the level of football on display, but yet, there were less then 100 people in the stadium. Arsenal dominated the game and turned in a 4-0 win; the match was used as a training exercise for some of England’s finest talents including Rachel Yankey, Faye White and Steph Houghton.

After the match, the players all went to the clubhouse with the fans, where they in turn celebrated their victory and chatted away whilst the rain and wind bellowed outside. Ireland’s No.1 Emma Byrne gave me a quick interview on the state of the game, and we then got onto chatting about the impending ‘Women’s Super League’.

The Super League, which began in April 2011, was created to give the game a more professional feel; it even allowed a handful of the top players to be paid a fee for playing in a game that still relies heavily on volunteers. During my brief flirtation with the sport, I got introduced to the Watford Ladies chairman; he wasn’t a rich Russian oligarch, an Indian poultry farmer or even a member of an oil-rich Arab family. The man in charge of the finances of the Premier League side was a painter and decorator by trade, and revealed that what Wayne Rooney earns in one day could actually fund his side for a whole year.

My experience watching and learning about this beautiful game left me wondering what the men’s game must have been like in the early years, when it didn’t rely on a business model, and the players merely played for the love of the game. The people involved with all aspects of the women’s game are still very much accessible; Jacqui Oatley and Vik Akers were more than happy to chat away about the sport they love. Would Gary Lineker or Arsene Wenger be as forthcoming with a humble interview request? I don’t think so, but I do believe that this is the case because the men’s game has more barriers surrounding their key talent.

Ladies’ football is ever evolving. The first game I went to watch had less than 100 people watching, whereas yesterday, a phenomenal 70,584 arrived at Wembley to watch Team GB take on Brazil. It’s a staggering thought to think of a near-full national stadium welcoming our ladies’ national side, a side that normally faces a barrage of disparaging comments and statements.

70,584 may just be a one-off; the ladies’ game still needs to change a lot to appeal to a wider demographic. The once-fabled American Women’s Professional Soccer League has now been suspended, but the English game can learn a lot from their American cousins. It would be great to see a totally professional ladies’ league in the UK, but first, there must be sponsorship in place and large attendances too. The perception of the game needs to change, because these ladies play attractive, intricate passing moves and can score some cracking goals.

If Team GB has taught the country anything, it is that women can play football.  The FA ban from the 1920’s may have seemingly killed off women’s football, but I hope that if you watched the game versus Brazil that you’d have been pleasantly surprised by what you saw.

One day the likes of Kelly Smith, Eniola Aluka and Kim Little may be mentioned in the same breath as David Beckham, Ashley Young and Gareth Bale. It won’t happen straight away, but eventually the beautiful game may just catch on, but for now, if you get the chance, then go and support the fastest growing sport currently in the UK whilst it’s still inexpensive.

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