With the Women’s World Cup taking place right now in Australia and New Zealand, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the history of women’s football. From its early history to a time when women’s football was more popular the men’s sport, to being banned across the world… it is a fascinating story!
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- Association football (n) – Also known as soccer, the most widely played form of football with specific rules established by the Football Association (FA).
- Association football was given the nickname soccer to avoid confusion with other types of football, especially Rugby football.
- Spectator (n) – People who watch a sports event or performance.
- 100,000 spectators crammed into the stadium.
- Prejudice (n) – Preconceived opinions or attitudes towards a certain group or individual.
- Women’s football was banned due to prejudice and discrimination.
- Newspaper coverage (n) – Reporting or news articles published in newspapers.
- The lack of newspaper coverage has held back women’s sport.
- To found (n) – to bring something into existence.
- The first women’s football club was founded in 1895.
- Professional (adj) – used to describe someone who does a job that people usually do as a hobby.
- The first female football players were often professional dancers or performers.
- Unsuitable (adj) – Not appropriate or fitting for a particular purpose or situation.
- Some countries banned women’s football as it was considered an unsuitable game for women.
- To overshadow (v) – to make something seem less important.
- They were worried that the women’s game could overshadow the men’s game!
2023 Women’s World Cup
For the next few weeks, the world’s best female footballers (or soccer players for those of you who prefer American English) will be gathering in Australia and New Zealand to take part in the ninth FIFA Women’s World Cup.
There will be 32 different countries playing throughout July and August, in the first ever Women’s World Cup to be hosted in two different countries at the same time and the biggest tournament in history.
The USA, champions of the previous two tournaments, are once again favourites to win this year. Other top contenders include Sweden, Germany, France, and current European champions England.
A number of countries are also making their debut in the tournament, demonstrating the spread and development of women’s football.
These new countries include Haiti, Morocco, Panama, the Philippines, Portugal, Republic of Ireland, Vietnam, and Zambia. Already, the Philippines pulled off a major shock by defeating hosts New Zealand in their opening game.
Women’s football is definitely growing in recognition and popularity. 87,192 people attended the Women’s European Championship final last year, held at England’s Wembley Stadium, making it the highest attended game in any European Championship – men’s or women’s.
While women’s football is on the rise now, it hasn’t always been the case. Let’s take a look at the history this game, from an era where it rivalled men’s sport in popularity, to being banned from using men’s football fields, the first unofficial World Cups, and the modern situation!
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Early Women’s Football
You may be under the impression that women being involved in team sports like football is relatively new thing. Professional women’s teams have only been around for a few decades, and the official Women’s World Cup started in the 1990s.
However, women have actually been involved in games of football for hundreds of years, before the modern game had even developed and the rules of the sport were wildly different.
The Ipswich Journal, a British publication, mentioned a group of women playing the sport in the 1726: “A new and extraordinary Entertainment was set on Foot for the Divertion of our polite Gentry… a Match at Foot-Ball, play’d by six young Women of a Side.”
And from the late 18th century onwards the Scottish town of Musselburgh held an annual football match between the married and unmarried women of the town.
We do need to be careful when talking about early football. Why? Because it was not the same game as you imagine today. The rules of association football were established in 1863 by the Football Association (FA) but even then the rules of the game and style of play was very different from what you may expect.
Before 1863, there was no one form of football – every town and school in England played slightly different rules. The number of players, use of hands, level of violence, size of pitches, and how to score was often completely different.
Even today there are different versions of football, all originating from the same British school and folk games of the past: soccer, American football, rugby football, Australian football, Gaelic football – they are all completely different sports with origins in the same sports.
The games these early women were playing were probably nothing like “football” as we imagine today. If this is the case, when was the first official game of women’s association football?
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The First Games and Teams
In 1881, a group of theatre businessmen and entrepreneurs had the idea to put on a different kind of show to the theatre performances they usually organised: a football game.
The game took place at the home of Scottish football club Hibernian in the Scottish capital Edinburgh and featured a team representing English women and a team representing Scotland.
The women were not experienced football players. In fact, they were dancers and performers. The English team was made up of members of Lizzie Gilbert’s Juvenile Ballet Company and the Scottish team from the Royal Princess’s Theatre House Company in Glasgow, Scotland.
The Scottish women went on to win the game 3-0, with Lily St Clare becoming the first women to ever score an officially recorded football goal.
The “Lady Players”, as they were known, went on to tour the UK playing games in front of paying crowds of thousands of spectators. There were issues – including a riot during their second game and a lot of negative newspaper coverage.
The first real women’s football club, not just a group of touring performers, was formed in 1895. Nettie Honeyball (probably a fake name) started the British Ladies’ Football Club and placed advertisements in newspapers looking for players.
British Ladies’ FC played a North vs South game as their debut match with 10,000 people watching. They were again mocked and laughed at by the newspapers.
More Popular than Men’s Football?
Things changed in the early 20th century. Europe soon descended into a vicious world war. Young British men signed up in their thousands to join the war effort and fight.
While British women weren’t fighting in the trenches, they did join the war effort. England’s factories, making weapons and materials for the war, employed thousands of female workers. They worked in terrible conditions, with dangerous machinery and chemicals, to supply the soldiers.
The UK government, realising that they needed these female workers to be healthy, started encouraging them to take part in sports – both for their physical fitness and as a break or distraction from the First World War.
Factories started to set up women’s football teams and play games against each other. The most famous of these clubs was Dick, Kerr’s Ladies FC, from the Dick, Kerr & Co munitions factory in Preston, founded in 1917.
Their games attracted thousands of spectators, raised money for different charities and the war effort, and was seen as a fun activity – a good replacement for men’s football.
However, the success and talent of these teams, and especially Dick, Kerr’s Ladies FC, demonstrated that women’s football could be a real competitive sport.
One player, Lily Parr, was praised by male footballers and considered one of the most skilful and powerful players of the time (she reportedly broke male goalkeepers’ hands and wrists with her shot power).
On boxing day (December 26th) in 1917, 53,000 people crammed into Goodison Park, the home of Everton football club. Reports suggest that over 10,000 more fans were locked outside the stadium.
They were not trying to watch the Everton men’s team. They were there to watch Dick, Kerr’s Ladies FC play St Helens Ladies team.
Women’s football was as popular, if not more popular, than the men’s game. The players were celebrities and it seemed as though women’s sport was going to continue to grow.
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Banning Women’s Football?
You probably realise that something must have happened 100 years ago to stop the success of women’s football in the UK.
In 1921, the Football Association of England effectively banned women’s football.
They listed two reasons.
- “complaints having been made as to football being played by women”
- “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”
While they couldn’t ban women from playing at all, they stopped any women’s team playing on a Football Association ground. This meant there were now very very few places women’s teams could play, and the game struggled.
The real reasons for the ban have been debated by historians for years.
Prejudice and discrimination are clear factors. Many of the officials in the FA believed that football was a game for men and only men.
When women’s football was raising money for charity and during the war, it was seen as a fun distraction. But as it kept growing, the FA were worried it would overshadow the men’s game. In some cases, the women’s matches were attracting larger crowds and making more money.
There was also another potential reason. The women’s war time football clubs were made up of working-class, strong, women from the cities and industrial towns of the north of England. This was a highly political time and region.
Women’s football clubs became associated with left-wing causes and groups. I could probably record a whole episode on sport and politics – it is definitely possible that the leaders of the FA were worried about the connections to Trade Unions and political groups.
Of course, not all men were against women’s football. Especially in those northern English towns, many men had enjoyed watching them play.
Women’s teams continued to operate during the FA ban, but they could no longer play on FA grounds and without newspaper coverage the game fell in popularity.
I’ve largely focused on the history of the sport in England and the UK so far, but women were playing football in other countries.
A famous example is Irene Gonzalez, a Spanish woman who played as a goalkeeper for a club she founded herself in the 1920s. She played for men’s clubs, before starting Irene Futbol Club – all the players were male apart from her.
In Brazil, there were over 10 women’s teams playing regularly in the 1930s, competitions were organised in France between 1917 and 1933, and even Nigeria had women’s games in the 1940s.
However, like the UK, many countries eventually banned women’s football.
Belgium banned the game from the 1920s until the late 1970s for “medical reasons”; Brazil banned it from 1941 until 1979 as football was considered “incompatible with the conditions of their nature”; it was actually illegal for women to play football in France under the war time Vichy government and the France Football Federation banned women until the 1970s; West Germany banned the game as it would damage women’ fertility and health.
And this is just a few places – it was banned in Norway, the Soviet Union, Nigeria, Spain, and more.
The First World Cup!
By the 1970s, many of these bans on women’s football were beginning to end. Italy became the first country to have part-time professional women’s players, and Italian clubs began to hire players from other countries.
In the year 1970, Italy hosted the Women’s World Cup. This was not an official FIFA organised tournament. It was organised by an Italian organisation known as the Federation of Independent European Female Football (FIEFF).
Teams from England, West Germany, Denmark, Mexico, Austria, Italy, and Switzerland travelled to Italy to play in the tournament – most of the teams were not official as women’s football may have been banned at the time.
For example, Denmark (the winners of the first World Cup) were represented by the team Boldklubben Femina who may have had Czech players in their team and had to wear AC Milan shirts after losing their kit on the journey.
A year later in 1971, a second Women’s World Cup was organised in Mexico. There are some interesting stories from this tournament: England was represented by teenagers as young as 15 years old and only qualified after most European teams withdrew; France and Netherlands played the first ever FIFA-recognised game to qualify for the tournament – but the French didn’t know it was a qualifying match and the Dutch team didn’t even realise they were playing France (they thought it was a practice game against the team Stade de Reims); and the final between Mexico and Denmark had an estimated attendance of 110,000 people.
It took 20 years before FIFA organised the first official Women’s World Cup, which took place in China in 1991. They were still undecided as to whether or not call it a World Cup, so it was officially known as the 1st FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup.
Now and the Future?
Since that first World Cup, women’s football has seen a surge in popularity worldwide, with more fans, media coverage, and investment than ever before. Major tournaments like the FIFA Women’s World Cup and the UEFA Women’s Euros have attracted large audiences, breaking attendance records, and gaining significant media attention.
As I mentioned previously, this year’s World Cup has 32 teams making it the largest tournament ever. And attendances at last year’s Women’s European Championships were record breaking.
The level of professionalism in women’s football has also risen substantially. Many top women’s football leagues around the world are now fully professional, offering players better training facilities, coaching, and competitive environments. From the USA to Europe and Asia, there are more opportunities for women to turn football into a career.
Pay for players has been increasing, there are now better facilities and more exposure in the media. Women’s football has attracted notable sponsors and partnerships, and efforts are being made to develop more youth players and teams around the world.
For many people, women’s football is seen as a friendly, more accessible, and less corrupt version of the men’s game. As the sport continues to improve in quality and popularity, hopefully it can continue to grow and succeed in a similar way!
There will of course be challenges – prejudice and discrimination, pay disputes, and the lack of opportunities. For example, women have a higher rate of knee injuries then male players due to football boots not being correctly designed for the female body.
However, the game is still developing, and more changes will come!
The history of women’s football, and sport in general, is fascinating. 100 years ago, women players were celebrities in some parts of England and played games in front of thousands of spectators. After decades of bans and prejudice, the game re-emerged in the 1970s and today the players are once again playing in front of thousands of spectators.
I have two lose connections to the world of professional women’s football which I think illustrate the changes and developments in the sport.
The aunt of one of my classmates at school played in the 1971 Mexico World Cup as a 15-year-old. The players had never played in a stadium before and as they were an unofficial team many received suspensions and bans from the English Football Association. Until recently, no one knew any of these players names in the UK and they had very little recognition.
The second connection is also related to my school. When I was in the final year of school there was a ceremony awarding special uniforms and badges for students who had played sport at a high level (playing for the local region, at a national tournament, etc). One of the younger students was given a badge for playing in the Arsenal Woman’s team academy.
That player is now a full-time professional player, captained England to winning the European Championships last year, and is a real celebrity in the UK and especially in the town I went to school in!
While still not recognised at the same level as the men’s game, the future of women’s football looks bright and promising.
What do you think? Are you watching this year’s Woman’s World Cup?
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