This year has been a landmark period for the women’s game, particularly in England. Not only have the past few months borne witness to possibly the biggest and best Women’s World Cup yet, but there was also the small matter of the launch of England’s first semi- professional league for women – The FA Women’s Super League (WSL). And it doesn’t stop there either.
If you were waiting for the ideal time to start following women’s football, it’s now – and you certainly won’t be alone. Viewing figures have proven that people are tuning in to the beautiful game, and in their masses. Crowds of up to 2,500 have been taking to the stands for FA WSL matches, which, whilst not huge in comparison to attendances of some men’s games, is a marked improvement on the few dozen supporters on the sidelines prior to the new league. People have been tuning in to ESPN too, with 113,000 people watching Chelsea take on Arsenal in the League’s launch game.
Add to this the millions of viewers who tuned in to the FIFA Women’s World Cup and the fact that the USA v Japan final broke the record on Twitter as the most tweeted event in the social networking site’s five-year-history, and you can’t say it hasn’t got a following.
Although the inaugural FA WSL season has just ended, it’s not game over until next summer. With The FA Women’s Premier League now in full swing and the Euro 2013 qualifiers taking place there’s plenty more ways for you to get your kicks. Also, as if you needed any more reasons, the Gunner girls, fresh from their league and Cup success, took some time out to tell us all about their rise to FA WSL glory and why women’s football is now, more than ever, the sport in the spotlight.
Gunning For Glory
Women’s football is progressing, there’s no doubt about that, but one thing that hasn’t changed a great deal in the last decade is Arsenal Ladies’ status as the powerhouses in the English women’s game.
With 33 major trophies to their name including the UEFA Women’s Cup and a hoard of Premier League and FA Cup honours, there was little the Gunners had left to conquer. Cue The FA WSL.
Their victory in the new elite league firmly cemented Arsenal as the driving force, but the fierce battle for the top spot is a perfect example of how far the women’s game has come. The league went down to the wire before Arsenal were crowned champions, eventually beating Liverpool 3 – 1 to finish three points ahead of their closest challengers Birmingham City who they later saw off to secure victory in the Continental Cup too.
Whilst in the past the Gunners’ success might have been decided with many games to go, the fact that in this landmark year they had to fight for every single point proves the overall development of the talent in this country.
And although fully aware that many people might have been rooting for another FA WSL side to knock them from their pedestal, club and England captain Faye White admits that it made Arsenal even more committed to winning the inaugural season.
“You always want to win, don’t you? And when there are lots of people out there hoping you don’t, it does make you more determined,” she explains.
“We’re delighted to have finished top of the league. It has been more challenging this season but it’s mad that we’ve still won. We’re a bit like ‘wow’, you appreciate it so much more.
“I think some people might have preferred for us not to win, but look at Manchester United in the men’s – they win year in year out and they’re always at the top. It’s the big clubs like that that keep pushing the game forward. Certainly in the women’s game we’ve been doing that for years, trying to get other teams up to the level we’re at.”
And it would seem that their efforts to motivate a more even playing field have finally come into fruition. With this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup and the new FA WSL putting female footballers under the spotlight, people appear to finally be sitting up and taking notice. Replacing The FA Women’s Premier League as the top tier in women’s football in England, it’s not just top-flight clubs and players that gain from the new league, with the benefits filtering both down to grassroots level and up to the national teams.
“The number of people that are coming to watch the games and the interest of the press particularly on the international scene with the big tournaments that we’ve played is getting there,” says Faye.
“Certainly around Arsenal, the support the fans give us is massive and the fact that more girls are getting involved in playing is very positive.”
As the nation’s top female team participation sport, there are now 1.38m women and girls across the country playing the game regularly. And the added interest, as well as participation, can only be a good thing for the women’s game in general, particularly on the international circuit.
Aside from their club duties, a number of The FA WSL stars have represented their country’s national side, and this year all eyes were on England and the part they played in the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2011.
Having progressed to the quarter finals of the tournament as well as defeated USA and Sweden prior to the World Cup, England have risen to a highest-ever position of sixth in the FIFA World Rankings. The increased commitments to the women’s game mean our nation’s success can only kick on from here, a view echoed by 22-year-old Arsenal and England striker Ellen White.
“To become an international you’ve got to perform first and foremost with your club,” she says. “So with the new league and it being that bit more competitive and with more money in the game everyone wanted to prove themselves.”
So looking ahead and the future is certainly bright for female footballers. With The FA Women’s Premier League action as well the Euro 2013
qualifiers and the 2012 Olympics to look forward to, the next couple of years will provide the perfect showcase for the women’s game.
And at the forefront? Chances are it’ll be Arsenal Ladies, and Faye’s confident that everything is finally slipping into place for women’s football.
“There’s been a lot of work gone into women’s football to get it to this level but it’s always going to keep improving.
“The younger players coming through are better and more equipped and getting England up to sixth is a big plus – it changes people’s perception of us as a footballing power in the women’s game which is a positive so we just have to keep going.”
Arsenal Ladies fast facts…
Manager: Laura Harvey
Chairman: Ivan Gazidis
Home Ground: Meadow Park, Borehamwood FC
Nickname: ‘The Gunners’
• Continental Cup winners 2011
• FA WSL champions 2011
• 12 times FA Women’s Premier League winners
• 11 times FA Women’s Cup winners
• 10 times FA Women’s Premier League Cup winners
• UEFA Women’s Cup winners 2007
History is to be made during next year’s London Olympics as Team GB are to compete in the women’s Olympic football tournament for the first time.
Both the women’s and men’s teams have been granted a place as the host nation, and as well as it being the first appearance for the GB women since it’s introduction to the Games in 1996, it will be the first time that GB has entered a men’s football team since 1960.
There has been some controversy with regards the formation of the men’s team, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland voicing their collective opposition to Team GB participation at the 2012 Games. But what about the girls? Both The FA and the British Olympic Association have confirmed GB will field a team in the women’s event, but couldn’t yet say whether this team would consist of solely English players.
An announcement of the managers for both Team GB sides has just been made – current England manager Hope Powell has unsurprisingly been chosen with the announcement of the full two squads finally being made next summer.
And the action is closer than you might think too! The women’s tournament is set to kick-start the 2012 Olympics in style, with the preliminary round matches starting on 25 July, two days before the Opening Ceremony of the Games, and concluding on 11 August.
Kelly Simmons, Head of National Game at The FA, said: “For women’s football there aren’t, at the moment, any plans to bid for the Women’s World Cup, so this really is our chance to have the very best players in the world in our country.
“The FA is completely committed to being part of a team that goes into the Olympics. England are sixth in the world and then if you add some considerable strength to that squad with other British players, they’ve got a real opportunity of getting a medal.”
The women’s game in numbers
• 113,000 people tuned in to ESPN to witness Chelsea fall 1-0 to Arsenal in The FA WSL’s launch match in April whilst 114,000 people have watched the ESPN Review Show.
• Prior to the mid-season break for the FIFA Women’s World Cup, a total of 15,897 had passed through the gates to watch The FA WSL teams in action, averaging at 567 people per game.
• This year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany smashed several TV audience records too, with the final three matches involving the German team attracting averages of over 16 million viewers nationwide.
• In the USA, an average audience of over 14.1 million watched the final between the USA and Japan. ESPN reported a peak audience during the penalty shoot-out of over 21.1 million – ESPN’s highest-ever audience for a football match.
Jessica Whittington, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine