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Is 2022 a defining year for women’s football?

Lionesses could storm to success at Euros 2022 but shadow of sport’s history still clouds its current success

England’s Lionesses stormed into the Uefa Women’s Euro 2022 final after a 4-0 win over Sweden, and pundits say the team have what it takes to claim the tournament’s ultimate prize.

2022 is a “breakthrough year” for women’s football, said The Guardian at the start of July. Change has been “bubbling through for a while”, and now “there is all to play for”. Tickets to the final at Wembley on 31 July sold out in less than an hour, and stadia across England have been packed out with football fans who have travelled internationally to see their teams compete.

Not all are as quick to conclude that now is women’s football’s so-called “moment”. It’s only “thanks to Fifa’s eccentric decision” to hold the men’s World Cup in Qatar this winter, The Economist said, that the women’s game is enjoying a “rare few weeks in the limelight”. For more than 100 years, the sport “has struggled to get recognition in the face of dismissive male attitudes”.

The ban that ‘destroyed’ the sport

Women’s football’s “‘golden era’” came in World War One, said the BBC. Women who had taken on work in munitions factories during the war effort formed teams to play matches and raise money for wounded soldiers – but this success was “short-lived”. Despite thousands of fans filling stadia to watch women’s games in the years after the war ended, the FA imposed a ban on women playing football in 1921, describing the sport as “unsuitable for females”.

“This diktat all but destroyed women’s football and, worse still, cemented prejudices that have taken a long time to shed,” said The Times’s columnist Matthew Syed. Women continued to play at home, in often appalling conditions, and internationally. However, it was not until 1971, 50 years later, that the ban was eventually lifted. 

Things didn’t necessarily get easier after that. England’s first official Lionesses did not receive official caps from the FA after their win against Scotland in 1972, the first official international game both teams competed in. The players instead paid for their own handmade replicas, and some of the team have told Sam Cunningham, the i news site’s chief football correspondent, of their disappointment that the FA has still not awarded them an official cap, particularly as this year marks the 50th anniversary of that victory. 

“It’s all very well saying we’re pioneers, but show us,” said former right-back Maggie Pearce. “It’s frustrating and disappointing when you hear all this going on.”  

The 1972 England Lionesses team

The 1972 England Lionesses team

Ronald Dumont/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Rebuilding momentum

In the past 30 or so years, momentum and support around the women’s game has been building, and the introduction of the FA Women’s Super League (WSL) in 2011 was a pivotal moment in the professionalisation of the game. Top players no longer needed to squeeze training sessions around their full-time jobs as teachers or postal workers – they would finally receive a full salary for their sports work. 

With regard to the standard and quality of the players’ skills today, “you only have to look at women’s matches from the past to note the progress that has been made and to gain a sense of the promise of the next quarter-century”, said The Times’s Syed.

The sport also had a boost from new fans. Television audiences “have been building” thanks to major broadcasting deals, said The Economist, with 125,000 people on average tuning in to England’s Women’s Super League every game, according to Sky Sports. Millions will be watching this year’s Euros, the magazine continued, and “many will be inspired to take up the game”. 

“That will be extremely good for the long-term development of women’s football.”

Syed agreed that the game’s current success “hints at a future evolutionary trajectory that will, I suspect, amaze insiders – and confound the critics”.

The Overview

Have lessons been learnt from the history of women’s football? Who are the new fans giving the sport a renewed surge of support? And what would it take to overcome the remaining barriers that stand in the sport’s way? 

On this episode of The Overview, The Week speaks to Professor Jean Williams, historian and author, Jen O’Neill, editor of She Kicks magazine, and Jenny Mitton, director at M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment.

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