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Festival of skill and Hegerberg's principles combine to create watershed moment for women's football

Festival of skill and Hegerberg's principles combine to create watershed moment for women's football

06/06/2019 at 16:23Updated 06/06/2019 at 18:52

The World Cup might be missing its biggest star in Ada Hegerberg but 2019 could prove a watershed moment for women’s football, writes Carrie Dunn, with the Lionesses front and central of a summer that could see football finally come home.

Once upon a time, a year ending in an odd number meant no football on the television for a stretch of barren, miserable weeks throughout the summer. This year, every single match of the Women’s World Cup will be broadcast live on free-to-air television in Britain. England are skippered by Steph Houghton, awarded an MBE after she captained the side to a bronze medal in Canada four years ago – and this time they are led by Phil Neville, formerly of Manchester United and Everton, who seems to be making a sound fist of his first managerial appointment. The media spotlight in Britain will be turned on and burning on the Lionesses as it has never done before.

The powers-that-be always like to bill every tournament as the biggest and most important ever for women’s football, offering an opportunity to win more fans and secure more financial investment. This glossy presentation of the sport overlooks what happens at the amateur levels – but it also studiously ignores some of the tensions existing in the elite international tier as professional players, who take their work incredibly seriously, consider themselves belittled or infantilised by governing bodies.

Twenty-four teams head to France, the home of the Champions League winners Lyon. It is also the adopted home of the first ever female Ballon D’Or winner – awarded last year after an unfeasibly long delay in introducing it. Its winner, Ada Hegerberg, will not be playing there this summer. Norway have qualified for the tournament – but she has declined to be called up for the past two years, explaining that until female players receive more respect from the national association, she will not represent them. Although since then the federation and players have signed an equal pay agreement, the striker has made herself clear that it isn’t necessarily just about the money, adding that there are other elements of professionalism that she feels are lacking in the set-up at the moment.

Ada Hegerberg of Sweden and Olympique Lyonnais wins the 2018 Ballon D'Or at Le Grand Palais on December 3, 2018 in Paris, France.

Ada Hegerberg of Sweden and Olympique Lyonnais wins the 2018 Ballon D'Or at Le Grand Palais on December 3, 2018 in Paris, France.Getty Images

The USA squad are having a similar dispute with their national association. They go in as defending champions, but despite their years of dominance, they are still earning significantly less than their male counterparts, who are much less successful on the world stage – indeed, the men didn’t even reach the 2018 World Cup. An agreement was reached in 2017 after some of the team’s most famous names including goalkeeper Hope Solo and striker Carli Lloyd filed a suit alleging wage discrimination; now the entire squad are suing, and want equal pay with the men as well as damages for the loss of earnings.

In England, there are no such gripes played out in public. The FA are thrilled and noisily enthusiastic that money is beginning to be invested into the game at the top level: Barclays have signed a deal to become title sponsors of the FA Women’s Super League, and plenty of firms have pushed their way to the front to be associated with the Lionesses this summer. The World Cup squad announcement grabbed the attention of notoriously fickle social media users, with famous names recording messages as they revealed one of the players on the plane. All were carefully chosen, too – Arsenal legend Ian Wright announced the selection of lifelong Gunners fan Leah Williamson, former England star Rachel Yankey (and her baby) announced the selection of her close friend Karen Carney. Members of the squad promptly and pleasantly did the media rounds, chatting to members of the press, and sitting smiling on the sofa for The One Show. They may not quite be household names yet, but by the end of the summer they hope to be.

And this summer will be the first big test for Phil Neville in his managerial career. Mark Sampson, who left the hot seat in September 2017, led England to a bronze medal in the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada, following that with a run to the semi-finals in the 2017 Euros, hosted in the Netherlands. The preparations have been positive, with the Lionesses winning the SheBelieves invitational in March – the first time they have ever lifted the trophy at that tournament, beating Brazil and Japan along the way.

England players celebrate after winning the SheBelieves Cup in Tampa, Florida, on March 5, 2019.

England players celebrate after winning the SheBelieves Cup in Tampa, Florida, on March 5, 2019.Getty Images

Before they can consider the World Cup knock-out stages, they need to progress through a difficult group, where they once again face 2011 champions Japan, Argentina, and Scotland – at a World Cup for the first time ever. Shelley Kerr’s squad does, admittedly, consist mostly of players based in England for their domestic season, but it is worth noting that even as England begins to forge forward with investing in the game, the leagues in the rest of the United Kingdom still do not offer professional football.

Nevertheless, 2019 could well be a watershed moment for women’s football, even leaving aside all the hype of the public relations machine connected to a major international tournament. The signs are certainly all there domestically. This year has seen a massive upswing in interest in the women’s game across the globe, with attendances at matches ballooning to sizes not seen since the start of the 20th century. That was when the famous factory side Dick, Kerr Ladies were luring in tens of thousands of spectators, and scared the English FA so much that they banned women from playing football for the next half-century. The more romantic might prefer not to think of it as a prohibition, but rather as a liberation from national governing bodies’ clutches. Teams in England from 1921 onwards were barred from competing on licensed grounds, and football associations refused to sanction their matches; so instead they travelled the world, playing exhibition games, and attracting thousands of fans. Authorities in other countries might not have gone so far as to stop women from playing altogether, but they did not encourage it, choosing instead to ignore it, until it became evident that it was becoming more and more popular – and they saw a chance to both control and profit from it. Women’s football was a bit of a nuisance, and continued to be treated as an after-thought, with few professional teams and little funding.

Now it is with the support of national associations and globally famous men’s clubs that women are proving themselves a genuine box-office draw. Lyon have enjoyed plenty of backing and plenty of money for years, and the six-time European champions have repaid that faith with dominance of both league and European competitions. Hegerberg was the star of this year’s Champions League final, scoring a hat-trick and picking up the player of the match award; she is already closing in on Anja Mittag’s European goalscoring record, and at the age of 23 has still surely not reached her peak.

The Olympique Lyonnais Women team celebrate with the trophy after winning the UEFA Women's Champions League Final between Olympique Lyonnais Women and FC Barcelona Women at Groupama Arena on May 18, 2019 in Budapest, Hungary.

The Olympique Lyonnais Women team celebrate with the trophy after winning the UEFA Women's Champions League Final between Olympique Lyonnais Women and FC Barcelona Women at Groupama Arena on May 18, 2019 in Budapest, Hungary.Getty Images

Given the chance, fans will fill massive stadia with huge capacities to watch women’s matches. Barcelona faced Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano, bringing in a crowd of 60,739, the most spectators for a domestic match in Europe in the modern era; a matter of days later, Juventus beat Fiorentina at the Allianz Stadium in front of 39,000 fans, a new record for a women's match in Italy.

Attendances have also been up on average in England, in the top-flight FA Women’s Super League – but it should be pointed out that there are now twelve teams in the division rather than the eleven that competed last time round. The big Premier League clubs allied with the WSL teams have not quite thrown open their stadium doors to the women, though Emma Hayes’ Chelsea have played European fixtures at Stamford Bridge in the past, and Joe Montemurro’s Arsenal secured their first title in seven years this season against Brighton at the Amex. Having said that, the Gunners have not played at the Emirates in recent years – that is something that could come with their home Champions League fixtures as they return to European competition next season, as the club have already announced the women will play a pre-season friendly there in July as part of the annual Emirates Cup.

Barcelona FC players celebrate their goal during the Spanish league football match between Club Atletico de Madrid and FC Barcelona at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid on March 17, 2019. - Some 60,000 spectators attended a women's football match

Barcelona FC players celebrate their goal during the Spanish league football match between Club Atletico de Madrid and FC Barcelona at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid on March 17, 2019. - Some 60,000 spectators attended a women's football matchGetty Images

In the meantime, it is down to the Lionesses to fly the flag for women’s football in England, and show the world that it is now just as slick and professional as any other country in the world. Four years ago, millions watched their campaign from afar, in a very awkward time zone; this year, there should be even more following their progress. Who knows – there may be yet another reprise of the song that once again swept the country last summer. Football’s coming home. Perhaps.

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