Why we'll be glued to our TV sets this month! Words and Images by Ali Wood @tvtraveller
The FIFA Women's World Cup looks to be the most exciting yet! The sport's come a long way since it was banned for encouraging women to act like men...
It’s ON! The FIFA Women’s World Cup kicked off on Friday with home team France playing South Korea. Today it's over to the UK teams, with England (ranked 3rd) playing Scotland. The US are the current champions – undefeated for 29 games until France beat them back in January during a friendly. What a night! The stadium in Le Havre was full – 25,000 fans screaming ‘Allez les bleus,’ and amongst them, me and my 8-year-old son, Brenin.
Rewind 24-hours and he was standing on the doorstep, refusing to come. Why? I asked, bewildered. He’d been so excited about the overnight ferry and a trip to France. I was writing a feature for Voyage magazine, and had two hospitality tickets to a World Cup friendly!
‘Because it’s women’s football,’ he mumbled, refusing to look me in the eye. Cue deep breaths from me… our ferry was leaving in an hour. How could he say that? We'd played football in the garden every night since he first became hooked. I’d even broken my big toe playing on the beach (and still went in goals afterwards!).
‘I’m so disappointed…’ I began, then I thought back to Match of the Day, and his Panini stickers, the World Cup coverage and his file full of Match Attax cards. Of course he prefers men’s football (or, let’s be honest ‘football’ – men need no qualifier) that’s all he’s been exposed to. It’s not his fault he has no interest in the women’s game… though I’m damned if that’s going to continue.
I dragged my reluctant son onto the overnight Brittany Ferry and he cheered up when he saw the cabin. We ate steak frites and jellybeans (well after bedtime) and crashed out to the comforting hum of the engine.
The next morning, arriving in Le Havre was an eye-opener. Right across the city were billboards with life-size figures of French footballers Eugénie Le Sommer and Grace Geyoro. Everybody was talking about the game, from the hoteliers to the bartenders. We met the Fox Sports team in our hotel and they showed Brenin all their fancy cameras. They had a whopping 200 hours of coverage to produce on the players’ backstories, and were surprised to learn how low-profile women’s football is in the UK. In the US, their female soccer players are household names. Kids wear their shirts and have their posters on their walls.
But we do have one claim to fame… the US women’s coach, Jill Ellis, was born in Portsmouth. Growing up, there were no girls’ teams where she lived, so she used to sub in for her brothers. Her dad, a football ambassador for the British government, moved the family to the US, where she finally got a chance to shine on the pitch. Despite getting a masters degree, and a job in technical writing, Ellis quit to become an assistant soccer coach… and look where it got her!
I’ve strong hopes for Britain’s coach, Phil Neville (did you know his sister, Tracey Neville, coached England's netball team to victory in the Commonwealth Games?). Perhaps the less said about former coach, Mark Sampson, the better, though I do miss the days of Hope Powell shouting from the sidelines. Powell made her England debut at the age of 16 before going on to win 66 caps, and coaching the UEFA and World Cup teams for over a decade.
I needn’t have worried about the women’s friendly in Le Havre. From the minute we arrived at the futuristic Stade Océane, Brenin was hooked. When France scored their third goal, the crowd roared ‘Et un, et deux et trois zero’ – a chant from the World Cup final the year before when the men’s team scored against Croatia. The stadium was on fire; there were flags flying, Mexican waves going round, and bare-chested fans waving their shirts (the males ones, thankfully)! It was the first time the new stadium was full, and boy, did France perform for the crowd!
The next day, Brenin begged me to take him to the Women’s World Cup exhibition in the shopping mall. Amongst the clothes shops and eateries was a pop-up display of cup trophies, signed prints, shirts and memorabilia – some of it going back decades. It was a reminder that women’s football has been on the scene a long time, if never in the limelight.
The History of Women’s Football
The first women’s international took place in 1920 between a French team and some munitions workers from Preston. Their team, the Dick Kerr’s Ladies, later went on to pull a 53,000 crowd at Goodison!
Women’s football had grown massively during the First World War, when women took over the men’s jobs. However, despite its growing popularity, in 1921 the Football Association banned women from playing on FA-affiliated pitches. It was a similar story right across Europe. Football, apparently, was harmful to women’s health and encouraged them to act like men.
It wasn’t until 1971 that the ban was lifted in England, following the formation of the Women's Football Association (WFA) a couple of years earlier.
Yet even when I was at school in the Nineties, football was strictly for boys. Girls had to play netball in ridiculous gym skirts – please tell me they don’t still wear them?
It wasn’t until university – when my housemates entered us into the six-aside league – that we realised how utterly brilliant it was to kick a football around. What had we been missing all this time! It was so inclusive – every course, club and society was represented, whether the Psychology girls or the Sikh Society, the Catholics (top of the league) or the Medics (booziest). After our own game, we’d make up numbers for any team that would have us, and it wasn’t unusual to play 3 hours on a Friday night and go straight to the pub in our kit.
Since then I’ve played 11-aside in Sydney, Brixton and Poole, as well as in half a dozen business leagues for companies I’ve never set foot in. Once you start playing you quickly make friends, and find teams desperate for players; there’s no better way to feel at home in a new town. Now it’s my kids who are making friends through football. Bring out a ball on any back street in any country in the world, and before you know it there’s an international taking place. Ah, the beautiful game!
I’d like to see more girls play football at my son's school. Our local club, however, is doing everything it can. Thumbs up for AFC Bournemouth. Just the other week we went to the Vitality Stadium to watch the women play Yeovil Town. Tickets were free (how great is that for a Premiership ground!) and though Bournemouth put up a brilliant fight, they were outclassed by a team four leagues higher (Yeovil striker Erin Bloomfield, pictured, is an England star in the making!). Not withstanding, the 664-strong crowd cheered and clapped them all the way. What nearly brought a tear to my eye (and I do get a bit emotional about these things) was seeing all the girls from local clubs, who came to watch in their team kits. For once, the women’s toilet queue was longer than the men’s.
Despite the disappointment of losing, AFC Bournemouth Ladies rushed to the barriers to high-five with the kids and hug their families and fans. ‘Thanks for coming,’ they said, clapping them on the back. The beam on Brenin’s face, when he posed for a photo in front of the players, was all the reassurance I needed that women’s football is finally as valid to him as the men’s. Now we can't wait for the England Scotland game. Come on the Lionesses!
Where to watch a game
The FIFA Women’s World Cup takes place in France from 07 June to 07 July in five northern cities: Rennes, Le Havre, Valenciennes, Paris and Reims, and four in the south: Montpellier, Grenoble, Nice and Lyon.
The Women’s World Cup final takes place on 07 July in Lyon
Find out more at www.fifa.com/womensworldcup
Get in the spirit
Check out Ms Banks’ World Cup rap, featuring all 24 qualifying countries and 264 players! Note that Norwegian Ada Hegerberg – winner of the Ballon d’Or and one of the top strikers in the world – isn’t amongst them, though you’ll see her shirt on the hanger. There’s a reason for this… she’s actively chosen not to represent her country because of the way it treats women’s football and its players.
Also featured are England star player Lucy Bronze , former Man City right-back who now plays for Lyon, and Brazilian legend Marta Vieira da Silva, who holds the record for the most goals scored at FIFA Women’s World Cup tournaments (15) and has won FIFA World Player of the Year five times.