Will England’s success at the World Cup be a watershed for women’s football? Grant Woodward reports.
IN some ways it was an all too familiar scenario. Within touching distance of a place in a major final, England’s footballers exited stage left in truly gut-wrenching circumstances.
A bizarre own goal in the dying seconds of their semi-final clash meant the 2015 World Cup can now be filed alongside Italia 90 and Euro 96 in the list of agonising near misses.
The difference, of course, was that this time it was England’s women who had been so tantalisingly close to glory. But for a nation starved of seeing the Three Lions progress beyond the quarter finals of a major men’s tournament in two decades, the Lionesses’ performances were a breath of fresh air and turned the likes of Lucy Bronze, Steph Houghton and Laura Bassett into near household names.
An estimated 2.4 million people stayed up to watch their semi-final against Japan – a greater number than watched some live Premier League games last season. It suggests there is a genuine appetite to watch the women’s team in major tournaments. So is this finally the watershed moment that women’s football in this country has been waiting for?
Lucy Ward, a stalwart of the game who played for Leeds United, Doncaster Rovers Belles and Leeds Carnegie, thinks it could well be. The 41-year-old was a co-commentator for the BBC during the tournament in Canada and senses a change in attitudes to a sport that, in some quarters, has long been derided.
“I’ve said it for years but I really do think it’s different this time,” she says. “People enjoyed seeing the pride they had playing for England and the fact that it wasn’t about the money but the sheer love of the game. That really shone through in the games.
“What’s important now is that they make sure that they use themselves to promote the game based on how well they did and that they commit to the cause.”
Ward well remembers the sexism she encountered as a girl growing up with a passion for football. Turning up for the hotel’s football sessions while on holiday only to be told they weren’t for her. Forcing her way into her local boys’ team because there wasn’t a girls’ equivalent. Being told she was just going through a tomboy phase and would soon grow out of it.
Understandably, she took some personal satisfaction from the way in which the World Cup fired the public’s imagination and kicked down a few barriers along the way.
“I guess people like me were pioneers for women’s football and paved the way for these girls,” she reflects. “Watching the semi-final, part of me thought ‘God, I wish that was me’. But also we are proud of the history of it. The reason why there are five-year-old girls walking around wearing Lucy Bronze or Steph Houghton shirts is because of players like me.”
Now that the Lionesses’ World Cup adventure is over, the question is how to keep the momentum going.
Money pumped into the women’s game by the Football Association has allowed the best players to give up their day jobs and turn professional, which has been credited as playing a big part in the success in Canada, where England beat Germany to finish third.
The launch of the Women’s Super League a few years ago has also upped standards, while the fact it runs from April to October has allowed the league to steal some of the spotlight from the men.
Former England captain Faye White has said that women’s football should now be marketed to a new, family-based audience and clubs must attract sponsorship in their own right. In the longer term, it is about making sure those girls and women who have been inspired the World Cup have the opportunity to pull on a pair of boots.
Among those tasked with that job is Eva Egginton who is Girls, Women’s and Inclusion Football Development Officer at Sheffield and Hallamshire County FA, the first in the country to create such a position.
“There are good signs that people are starting to buy into the idea that women’s football is a sport in its own right,” she says. “That difference between the men’s and women’s games even influences the way that you market it to girls.
“If a club advertises training sessions for a new team, girls are more likely to think that means they have to be competent and know all the rules right away. If you call it a soccer school then it sends the message that you don’t have to be good at it – just come along and have fun.
“We’ve done surveys of seven to 11-year-olds who are interested in football but aren’t playing in teams,” she says. “We’re looking at whether that’s partly because parents are encouraging them to play typically female sports such as netball and hockey rather than playing football.
“We’re trying to remove the barrier of parents who say football is not a girls’ game rather than giving their daughters a chance to have a go at it. We want to open the floodgates.”
In the here and now. Lucy Ward is clear that the opportunity to sell women’s football to the British public must be seized with both hands.
“In America you’re a good player whether you’re male or female, but we’ve been bogged down by the stereotypical view of football in this country. It’s time that changed.” For women’s football, there’s a sense that it’s now or never.