MARSEILLE: Women’s football has fought a long battle for recognition — but after several false starts the women’s game has boomed in popularity and this year’s World Cup in France promises to be the most-watched in history.
The women’s game first emerged in Britain after World War I and found a new wave of support again in the late 1960s, before receding only to emerge again in the 1990s.
The emancipation movement after World War I triggered what many historians consider to be the golden age of women’s football.
As men were drafted to the front, women took their place on the factory floor, and in their breaks, some of them enjoyed a kick around in the yards, a tradition the male factory workers had previously enjoyed.
The era had its great team, the “Munitionnettes”, from Dick Kerr’s munitions factory in Preston, northwest England, and their star player, Lily Parr, remains the sole woman in English football’s Hall of Fame. She was inaugurated in 2009.
On December 26, 1920, over 53,000 fans filled Everton’s Goodison Park to watch Dick Kerr’s Ladies beat St Helen’s 4-0.
But the following year, the Football Association banned women from playing on Football League grounds, saying “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”.
Feminist movement shapes attitudes
Women’s football then began to gain ground in Belgium, France and Germany. But without national infrastructures, it faded in the 1930s.
It was not until the 1960s that it was given fresh impetus by the burgeoning feminist movement.
“The moment for the liberation of women liberated women not only politically but also physically,” historian Anais Bohuon, of Paris Sud University, said.
“We could do what the men did and if we wanted to pursue physical pastimes, we could.”
The women’s game once again raised its head when the first European championships took place in 1969. They were won by Italy, although neither UEFA not FIFA recognised the event as official.
A seven-nation World Cup was organised in Italy in 1970, won by Denmark, and several other events took place without FIFA’s approval.
‘A man’s world’
The women’s game advanced only slowly however, while feminism in the wider sense continued to gain only incremental progress in terms of gaining equal civil rights.
Women playing football “was a concrete example of all the moral fears that have crossed the centuries surrounding women and their bodies and what they do with them,” Bohuon said.
“There were great fears, both medical and social, that by making their bodies more ‘masculine’ they could even put their reproductive organs in danger and that they were refusing to submit to the role that had been alloted to them.”
The big exception was in the United States, where from the outset “soccer was seen as a women’s game, with girls playing from a very young age, and it became accepted behaviour,” Bohuon added.
It was no surprise then that it was American teams that dominated the first FIFA-backed World Cups, winning in 1991 and 1999, when 90,185 spectators watched the final at the Rose Bowl in California, which remains a world record for a women’s match. Norway took the honours in 1995.
UEFA organised its first official women’s European championships in 1984, won by Sweden, while the Asian federation had done the same as early as 1975.
Africa and South America created their regional competitions in 1991.
In terms of club football, a women’s Champions League was launched in 2001-2002 while the professional era got off to a rocky start in the United States before re-launching in 2009.
More and more girls have been attracted to football, partly motivated by the 2002 British-made feature film “Bend It Like Beckham”, starring Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightley.
A new attendance benchmark for a European women’s club match was set in March when a crowd of 60,739 watched Barcelona beat Atletico Madrid 2-0 at the Wanda Metropolitano in the Spanish capital.
There is also now a woman’s Ballon d’Or, with the first winner Norway’s Ada Hegerberg.
Hegerberg, who plays for French side Lyon, will, however, be absent from the World Cup because she is boycotting her national federation, accusing it of allowing progress to stagnate and an amateur approach.