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Two female footballers competing for the ball

The modern history of women’s football 

Image: ph.FAB / Shutterstock.com

Broadcasting to an audience of billions, the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup is a momentous event in the history of women’s football – and what a history it’s been. Let’s take a look back at the ups and downs of the women’s game over the past century.

The crackdown

Women’s football stems at least as far back as the Victorian era, but its visibility and popularity first exploded during World War I. Women who had taken up factory jobs to help the war effort started playing football in their spare time, and these teams rapidly began attracting huge crowds.

As our feature on this period reveals, women’s football became the dominant form of the sport in the UK, even after the war ended. Perhaps the most celebrated match of that era came on Boxing Day 1920, when Dick, Kerr Ladies FC played rival women’s team St Helen’s before a mammoth 53,000-strong audience at Goodison Park. Rattled by the burgeoning popularity of women’s football (and arguably by the fact that women’s teams had been raising funds for workers and left-wing causes) the FA decided to step in.

Stating that ‘the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged’, the FA ruled that women’s teams could no longer use official FA grounds. While this move, in 1921, didn’t technically mean the women’s game was banned, it officially legitimised sexist prejudices against the game and seriously stifled its growth.

The players were understandably incensed. In the words of Gail Newsham, author of In A League of The Own!, ‘When I spoke to [Dick, Kerr player] Alice Norris and some of the other ladies they all said they thought the FA was just jealous because they were getting bigger crowds.’

The wilderness years

The stars of women’s football refused to be cowed by the FA’s decision. One commentator known as ‘Football Girl’ even welcomed the decision as a wake-up call, writing, ‘Women's footballers have at last been roused to the necessity of organisation if they are to carry on, and the FA ban, having made us independent of outside bodies, has given us the additional impetus that will probably make us organise ourselves far more thoroughly than we should have done if we had been in a half-and-half situation.’

Sure enough, the English Ladies Football Association (ELFA) was formed at the end of 1921, just weeks after the FA’s shock move. It only lasted a year, but its brief existence underscored the defiance of women players, who would play matches at public parks, rugby grounds, and even dog tracks if necessary.

Despite their abruptly diminished exposure, some players continued to enjoy a degree of celebrity. Lily Parr of Dick, Kerr Ladies was dubbed the ‘most brilliant female player in the world’, while Val Robinson (later a hockey star) was so good that none other than Matt Busby remarked that he’d have signed her up for Manchester United if she’d been a man.

In the face of dwindling audiences and the sheer adversity of these wilderness years, the Women’s Football Association – a successor to the earlier ELFA – was formed in 1969, and the FA’s ‘ban’ was finally revoked in 1970.

The first women’s world cups

1970 proved to be a pivotal year for women’s football for another reason: it witnessed the first event billed as the Women’s World Cup. Taking place in Italy, the ‘Coppa del Mondo’ was organised, not by FIFA, but by an Italian business consortium called the Federation of Independent European Female Football (FIEFF). Despite its unofficial status, the event saw teams playing to crowds numbering in their tens of thousands, with Denmark walking away the winners.

Another FIEFF Women’s World Cup took place the following year in Mexico, and this turned out to be a major pop culture moment, complete with a plethora of merchandise and its own cartoon mascot: a young, rather sassy-looking football player named Xochitl.

The England team, largely made up of young teenagers, were dazzled by the limelight. ‘We had only played in the small qualifying tournament in Sicily, which was played on the park-type pitches we were used to,’ England midfielder Chris Lockwood, then aged 15, later told the BBC. ‘And suddenly we were in the middle of World Cup fever in this huge glitzy, professionally staged, global tournament.’

Unfortunately, England would lose all their matches in the group stage, the incredible humidity taking its toll on the young players. However, one of the games – against Mexico – boasted a 95,000-strong crowd, which is still the highest-ever attendance for an England women’s team match.

That World Cup saw Denmark crowned as the overall winner once again. Two decades passed before the first official FIFA Women’s World Cup took place in China in 1991.

The rise and rise of the Women’s World Cup

Women’s football is now rapidly making up for the setbacks suffered throughout much of the 20th century. The 2019 Women’s World Cup racked up a record 1.12 billion viewers and saw Brazilian player Marta acclaimed as an all-time great when she became the first-ever player, male or female, to score goals in five different World Cups.

However, controversy still rages around the disparity in prize money between the men’s and women’s tournaments. While the 2023 prize pot for the Women’s World Cup is $110 million, a considerable improvement on the $30 million pot for 2019, it’s still markedly less than the $440 million that was lavished on the 2022 men’s tournament in Qatar. Given the ever-rising popularity of the women’s game, it’s hoped that FIFA will make good on its vow to achieve full pay parity by 2027.