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How women's football is reclaiming its place on the pitch

BY Kate Beeden

2nd Feb 2023 Sport

How women's football is reclaiming its place on the pitch

Since the FA banned women's football in 1921, women have been fighting to win back their rightful place in the beautiful game

Women’s football has been in the shadow of the men’s game for the past century—which is no surprise, as the Football Association (FA) banned women’s football from any grounds affiliated with their organisation in 1921, deeming the sport "quite unsuitable for females".

But the rapid growth of the women’s game over recent years, bolstered by last year’s Euro triumph for the Lionesses, is bringing more female and non-binary players back to the sport.

Equal halves

Sepia photo of Dick Kerr's women's football team in the 1920sCourtesy of National Football Museum. The Dick Kerr's women's team drew the largest crowd any England team had ever seen to their 1920 match with St Helen's

At the start of the 21st century, women’s football was a popular spectator sport. Women’s matches during and immediately after World War I attracted bumper crowds, with a 1920 fixture between Dick Kerr’s and St Helen’s drawing 53,000 to Goodison Park—the largest attendance in England for any match up to that point.

"A 1920 fixture between Dick Kerr’s and St Helen’s drew the largest attendance in England for any match up to that point"

The men’s and women’s games were equally as successful until the FA’s 1921 ban stopped women’s football in its tracks.

Women’s uprising

Of course, there were women who continued to play football after the ban and this pioneering spirit led to the inception of the WFA (Women’s Football Association).

In 1971 the FA lifted its ban on women playing on grounds of affiliated clubs.

Hope Powell’s appointment as full-time coach for the England women’s team in 1998 was a milestone moment, and throughout the nineties and noughties presenters such as Gabby Logan and Kelly Cates proved women could critique the game just as well as their male counterparts.

Popular culture also represented the women's sport, with the film Bend It Like Beckham being nominated for a Golden Globe.

Across the Atlantic, the women’s game was also going from strength to strength with a new wave of players carving a path for the growth of women’s football.

The roar of the Lionesses

Crowd watching women's football with one man holding Credit: James Boyes from UK, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. The Lionesses' success at the 2022 Women's Euros could inspire even more women to join the game

The Women’s Super League (WSL) launched in 2011 with the FA’s "Gameplan for Growth" initiative to encourage females to play football following soon after.

By 2020, more than three million women and girls were involved in football participation – a number which will surely continue to grow following the Lionesses’ Women’s Euros success last year.

Designing an inclusive football kit

Kit and equipment used by all genders has been predominantly designed by or for men. Everything from the size of the goal to the boots and shirts worn have been created with men in mind which naturally has an effect.

West Bromwich Albion Women midfielder Kerry Walklett says, “As a player you want to feel good when stepping onto the field and ill-fitting kit has always been a problem in the women's game. One-sized men's fit is what most players are used to, rolling up shorts and tucking tops in shorts was the norm till recent years.

"Players feel more confident when they don’t need to worry about menstrual leaks"

"As a smaller player, I have always worn under armour due to the lower collars on tops or the shorts being really loose. It gives me a sense of security.”

As kit-makers have reacted to the pleas for shirts cut for the female shape, West Bromwich Albion Women have also changed their kit, adapting their shorts from white as players feel more comfortable and confident when they don’t need to worry about menstrual leaks.

ACL injuries in the women’s game

Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) injuries can be serious or even career-ending for footballers. Studies suggest women athletes are around six times more likely to tear their ACL than males, with claims that the high percentage of ACL injuries in the women’s game could be linked to the design of football boots.

Manufacturers traditionally design their boots for men, which can be problematic as women’s feet are a totally different shape to men’s.

"The high percentage of ACL injuries in the women’s game could be linked to the design of football boots"

“There is a section for female boots, however, it’s very limited and hardly advertised,” explains Sheffield United Women’s player, Althea Paul.

Walklett also only recently found out about women’s boots. “A company called 'Ida' sponsored the futsal league and we were provided with specially designed shoes for women. And what a difference! You get so used to boots not fitting well and just put it down to the design or brand rather than it being a gender design issue.”

Change for the future

Sarina Wiegman, coach of women's football team Lionesses, answering questions at press conferenceCredit: James Boyes from UK, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Lionesses' coach Sarina Weigman wants to see more research helping women's participation in football

What changes do women in football hope to see in the future? Lionesses coach Sarina Weigman wants more research specific to the women’s game, with Beth Mead adding that the issues would be taken more seriously if they affected stars of the men’s game such as Ronaldo and Messi.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom.

“There have been huge steps in the women’s game in recent years in terms of facilities, equipment, quality and quantity of staff which all improve fitness, quality and reduce injury,” says Althea Paul.

But, she adds, “there are still a lot of teams out with poor facilities and equipment that increase the chance of injury—personally, I feel the majority of my injuries have been caused by the venues we play at, which are often 3G pitches.”

The message from those leading the line is clear. If we want the women’s game to grow, we need to ensure the facilities and equipment available are fit for purpose and—crucially—designed with women in mind.

Banner image credit: James Boyes, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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