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A historical debt with women’s football

8 Mar 2021   ·   

On 26th December 1920, a Women’s Premier League match was held at the Goodison Park stadium in Liverpool. There were more than fifty-three thousand fans gathered on the stands to watch St. Helen Ladies v. Dick Kerr Ladies F.C.

Thousands of people were left on the street due to the event being sold out, which was an unprecedented occurrence  at the Goodison Park. The stadium was the regular location for the Everton’s men’s team matches, which in fact failed to fill the stands during the whole season. Everton’s best ticket office record had been surpassed by fourteen thousand spectators by Dick Kerr Ladies F.C. It was not even the first time that women’s football attracted crowds or surpassed the drawing power of men’s football. Back then, there were one hundred and fifty women’s teams in England only. Dick Kerr Ladies was the most successful of all of them. The team had been formed during World War I by female workers at an ammunition factory, who had begun to get involved in informal matches their male colleagues played during breaks and lunchtime on a promenade next to the factory. One day, they organised a match in which women played against men; women won and so the idea of creating a new team to compete emerged. Dick Kerr Ladies got to enjoy such prestige that, besides becoming the key team of the Premier League, it was also the first England women’s football team that performed an international exhibition tour. It was also one of the pioneering teams in terms of clothing, since the players wore shorts challenging a social convention to not play with uncomfortable clothes. The team also included the greatest star of women’s football back then, the legendary Lily Parr. Daughter of a glass industry worker, Parr played left winger and was known for her powerful kick, besides her strong personality.

Men’s teams and the English Football Association itself, became wary of the rise of the women’s game, thinking of it as a threat. Instead of encouraging a fair competition or seeking complementarity between both Leagues – for example, organising joint matchdays with double match sessions –, the Football Association chose a restrictive policy. In 1921, months after the Goodison Park sell-out, the F.A. prohibited the performance of female professional competitions. The pretext, which is taken from the official communiqué, reads as follows: the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged. The prohibition would last fifty years and marked the decline of Women’s Football in England, it had become a role model, but broke down when its official competitions were outlawed.

In the meantime, women’s football flourished in other countries where local federations did not support the ban. During the 1930s, France and Italy established their own leagues. Germany did so in the 1950s. In 1957, the first cup between European teams was held, although still of an unofficial nature. In 1970, there were more than thirty countries in the world that had female competitions recognised by their respective federations. In 1971, finally, the F.A. removed the competitive veto, but the once-thriving English Women’s Football, well on its way to full professionalisation, had suffered some damage that would take several decades to start healing. The Football Association did not even propose a recovery plan until 1997; even with that plan already in place, a female league could not be re-established until 2011. Not due to a lack of practitioners, as in 2011 the number of English women and children who played football regularly was near two and a half million.

The English case was extreme, since its female football went through stunning success to sudden prohibition, but even in more tolerant countries, female competitions have almost always flown under the radar. The veto in England damaged the image of female football, and in many cultural fields, football started to be seen as an eminently masculine activity, whether in childhood as a game, in adolescence as an extracurricular activity or in the professional sports field. This prejudice has become widespread, although it lacks any historical basis, since football matches between women can be dated back to the late 18th century, as seen mentioned in chronicles. In the United Kingdom, where modern football was born, women became fond of the game with the same enthusiasm as men, long before teams like Dick Kerr Ladies were even founded. In 1863, especially designed rules were introduced for women not to suffer physical harm, which not only reflects the nineteenth-century mentality that judged women as fragile and in need of constant protection, but also shows, beyond all doubt, that women’s football was already widespread in the second half of the 19thcentury. In fact, the oldest women’s match for which a complete record and documentation still exist took place in Scotland in 1892. The English women’s football, which should have been the spearhead of international women’s football, was officially suppressed for half a century. And extra-officially ignored for almost half a century more after.

It is often said that football is the most democratic of team sports. Millions of fans practise it around the world since it is a game that does not require much economic resources or special training. For many children that come from developing countries or neighbourhoods without sports facilities, it is indeed a very affordable option for leisure and exercise. If they do not have a ball, a handmade ball made from almost any type of disposable material and a surface that does not need to be smooth or treated can still do. Some great football players learned the fundamentals of their profession by playing in dusty streets, humble flats and abandoned fields. As a spectacle, football is very dynamic; it is played without major interruptions. It is easy to follow visually since it has simple rules that anybody can quickly pick up to enjoy watching a match. Football is for everybody.

And, however, half the population was artificially excluded from its front line. There is no reason for girls, young ladies and women not to be part of this legion of practitioners. An illustrative demonstration comes to us precisely from one of the countries we consider to be the least football-lover: The United States. There, all grassroots sports have a strong school and university network, but football never was a very popular sport among male students. The sports that always drew attention of most male practitioners were “American football”, baseball and basketball, the same that enjoyed media popularity and social impact among adult spectators. On the other hand, European football (or the way they call it, soccer) used to be seen as an eminently female sport. Especially in the school and youth environments, many girls and adolescents practised it with total naturalness. In the United States, the image of schoolgirls playing soccer was very common, forming teams and participating in competitions did not raise questioning about the appropriateness of such practices. This curious inversion of football stereotypes showed that gender prejudices depend entirely on a subjective vision that varies according to the cultural and geographic context, and that is not based on biological, psychological, or sporting criteria. If American girls were offered the opportunity, they would play football and enjoy it as much as boys from other parts of the world. Love for football is not a matter of innate preference. It is not about European, Latin American, African, or Asian girls not being able to like football as American girls did; the point could be summarised simply by saying that, especially after the British prohibitions, it began to be taken for granted that this game did not belong to them.

A concatenation of social phenomena began to question these prejudices. In the United States, it was immigration –especially the one of Latin American origin– that stimulated a progressive approach to a sport that had been ignored; American people started to pay certain attention to international competitions, such as the World Cup, in which their National team would participate. This, in other times, would have been unthinkable. And, unsurprisingly, the robust grassroots organisation of American women’s football became an unexpected benchmark for American men’s football, since men’s teams were, in spite of their visible progress, inferior to teams of European or South American powers. However, in the female competition, American women dominated easily. Those girls who played and trained in schools and high schools became amazing players. It is enough to say that the Women’s World Cup was inaugurated in 1991, and since then the American team has won four of eight cups (in fact, in no edition have they finished outside the top three). Three American women have been named best player in different editions of the World Cup, and four American women have been named top scorer. The amazing achievements of American female football show that its health has not depended so much on the media popularity of this sport in that nation, which was practically non-existent, but on the conscientious nurturing of the junior and youth levels. Americans were not fans of either women’s or men’s soccer, but it was the training programmes which created great generations of female players who went on to make their mark internationally. That knowledge has also shown that in European countries, which are eminently football-oriented, that cultivation of women’s grassroots had been neglected, at least by comparison.

However, the influence that media attention has on the development of grassroots sports should not be underestimated. Let us take Spain as an example, where a parallel phenomenon different from that in the United States has occurred: the substantial increase in female fans that follow men’s leagues. Football is omnipresent in Spanish media, and it was to be expected that female spectators would increase. An increase in female fans leads to an increase in women interested in playing. Following the same logic sequence, this leads to an increase in the focus on women’s football. But media support is still important. Let us not forget the importance of representation, of young girls being able to watch and look up to female players in action, playing in leagues and World Cups, scoring goals, and jumping of joy, and being able to become role models. The same models that existed more than a hundred years ago. Even from the economic point of view, female competition is a great opportunity to be rediscovered, as it is easy to see from researching the chronicles of the early 20th century.

The growing practises football played by women are not, or not only, a simple consequence derived from the social progress of women. It is true that women have risen up in several areas of society that were previously denied to them, but there were already sports that turned women into stars, such as tennis, track, and field, etc. The consolidation of women’s football should not be labelled as a “new” advance per se, but as the recovery of a territory that was taken away from the first professional female football players.



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