I will never forget my first women’s World Cup. It was 2007, in China, and England’s greatest ever footballer, Kelly Smith, had just scored against Japan in their opening match in Shanghai. The real-life inspiration for Bend It Like Beckham whipped off her left boot, held it aloft and gave it a kiss. Cameras clicked, an iconic image in the making. It was thrilling. England manager Hope Powell, however, was said to be furious.
Kissing a label? What a display.
Twelve years ago women’s football was in a different place. England’s World Cup squad announcement took place in a branch of Nationwide in Swindon, on a PowerPoint presentation. When England qualified, holding France to a draw in Rennes the previous year, a tiny group of journalists joined the players and their families in the hotel bar to celebrate the achievement – then only England’s second appearance in the official tournament.
Of course the official Fifa tournament does not have a long history. The inaugural 1991 version took place in China, with the games only 80 minutes long, a hangover from the idea that women’s reproductive systems could not cope with an extra 10 minutes. England were not involved.
This is a game whose rich history spans three centuries.
As our current day Lionesses take to the field in Nice on Sunday to play Scotland, it is a re-run of the earliest recorded organised match in Britain, when the same teams met at Easter Road in 1881. Scotland took the victory, 3-0, while in a rematch in Glasgow a week later, a pitch invasion ensued. Patrick Brennan’s brilliant Donmouth website shares theNottinghamshire Guardian report which notes that the players were “roughly jostled, and had prematurely to take refuge in the omnibus which had conveyed them to the ground”.
The game grew, with the 1895 British Ladies match in Crouch End attracting media coverage and a paying crowd, even throwing up a black pioneer. Initially believed to be Emma Clarke, there has since been doubt cast over that narrative, and historians are working to uncover her true identity.
The world-famous Dick, Kerr Ladies took the sport to another level, playing Alice Milliat’s France team following the First World War and attracting a then record crowd of 53,000 against St Helen’s at Goodison Park in 1920.
My favourite quote summing up the early profile of the game is from Prof Jean Williams, who likens imagery of the players appearing on 1920s Lyons’ cake boxes to “going for McDonald’s and seeing a picture of Steph Houghton on the packaging.” We’ve come full circle then, as Houghton and her Lioness team-mates are appearing on bottles of Lucozade.
The game was banned from 1921-71 in England, but it never died. Women continued to play, organising teams and tournaments despite the obstacles. I was lucky enough to interview the great Sylvia Gore before she died. She recalled playing football in the 1960s for the legendary Manchester Corinthians team – on muddy pitches littered with broken glass, and with nowhere to get showered or changed. On one memorable occasion the team jumped into the duck pond for a wash.
In Scotland, where the ban lasted until 1974, it was a similar picture, with fishing nets for goal nets. Rose Reilly, the only Scottish footballer male or female to win the World Cup, was scouted at seven years old to play for Celtic boys, having shaved her head and adopted the name “Ross”. She eventually signed for AC Milan, in a heyday for the Italian women’s game, and was given special permission to play for the national side who won the World Cup in 1984.
In Women on the Ball, 1970s England striker Sue Lopez wrote of her frustration that a women’s home World Cup had not followed the men’s. She recalled gaining the support of England’s 1966 World Cup heroes, meeting Geoff Hurst and Alf Ramsey in 1971, along with a promoter who promised £150,000 in sponsorship. “Geoff Hurst reassured me that it was no gimmick. They were deadly serious about coaching the team to ensure England did well.” But the Women’s Football Association at the time were unconvinced and it never came to pass.
That same year, Mexico hosted a World Cup attracting more than 100,000 spectators to the final. Denmark triumphed with a hat trick from 15-year-old Susanne Augustesen, while England’s teenage team returned home without a win; jobless too, in the case of Janice Emms, mother of badminton star Gail, who had quit her job as a bank clerk to play at the Azteca.
Almost 50 years later and we are seeing the game taking place on a huge scale once more.
This summer’s tournament is expected to be the biggest ever, with multi-million pound sponsorship deals, live coverage of every match on the BBC, daily broadcasts from the Lionesses camp via Twitter, and murals of England and Scotland’s football icons across the nation.
Smith’s kiss of the boot was prescient; both commercially, and as thrilling entertainment, the game has legs.
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