And why we should all be tuning in.
The FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019 is in full swing, with tonight seeing England playing USA in Lyon’s Olympic Stadium for a place in the finals.
The stadium is set to be packed and millions of viewers are expected to tune in across the UK alone, with this year’s audience setting a new record for women’s football.
This to me seemed impressive, a step towards equality, but it wasn’t until I visited the Women’s World Cup for myself and learnt about the history of the game that I realised how much of a watershed moment for women’s football it actually is.
While I was in Paris for the quarter finals last weekend, I was recommended a visit to ‘The Women’s Game’, an exhibition on the history of women’s football at the FIFA World Football Museum, presented by FIFA Partner Hyundai.
Women’s football has a long history, with periods of popularity and decline, but what the exhibition really revealed to me was the continuous struggle for acceptance and survival – this game is nothing if not resilient. I was shocked to learn of the extent of the marginalisation, with women’s football actually being banned for 50 years. But while there is clearly still a long way to go, I realised how far we have come and the importance of this World Cup and the public support around it.
Women’s football was established at the same time as men’s football, but it wasn’t until World War One that it really took off – people wanted to watch football and the men were away fighting. So while women were taking to factories, they were also taking to the football pitches, reportedly bringing in crowds of 53,000.
When the World War ended however, football was once more deemed unsuitable for women, and while ‘health concerns’ were cited as the reasons, it seems it was actually more to do with a successful women’s league threatening the men’s. Essentially, people wanted to put women ‘back in their place’ in society.
According to the BBC, Dr Mary Scharlieb of Harley Street described women’s football as the ‘most unsuitable game, too much for a woman’s physical frame’.
In December 1921, the Football Association weighed in on the sport being unsuitable for women, instructing its clubs ‘to refuse the use of their grounds for such matches’.
The ban on women’s football was lifted in 1971, but it had changed the women’s game forever.
Knowing all of this may be depressing but it also makes the fact that this World Cup has brought in over 433 million views on Fifa channels all the more impressive. Women’s football isn’t just about the sport – it’s about rejection, resilience and revival. It has taken a long history of struggle to get to where it is now, and knowing that history only makes the game all the more inspiring.
‘I think the way society and the world is viewing women’s football players can be seen in the television numbers, can be seen in the tickets sold, can be seen in the passion both pre and post-game in this tournament and obviously four years ago in Canada,’ explained retired US football legend, Mia Hamm, whose painting by blind artist, Rachel Gadsden, is a focal part of the exhibition. ‘It’s just getting better and better over time the more visibility that people can comprehend and see that these women are not only amazing athletes and amazing footballers but amazing role models. Not only for young girls but for society as a whole.’
Going on to champion the exhibition and Hyundai’s True Passion campaign, she continued: ‘You walk in here and you see the history of women’s football, that this game and the women playing it have been around for a lot longer than our first world cup. It is rooted in history it is rooted in everyone’s communities and to acknowledge that and to celebrate that motivates us to continue to do even more.’
‘The women’s game has grown,’ England Captain Steph Houghton told me last year in a Women Who Win interview. ‘But when I was playing at Arsenal, I don’t think people realised how good we actually were. I think there’s just a perception that we just play football but we’re not very good, and it was a challenge for us to try and prove those type of people wrong.’
‘We’ve really proved how far the women’s game has come,’ she continued. ‘Not just in terms of being on TV but in terms of actual technical ability, fitness levels and the fact that we give up a lot to be the athletes that we are.’
‘It is our duty to inspire young girls to play a sport,’ she concluded. ‘Whether it’s just for enjoyment and keeping fit, or to actually go on and try and make a career out of it. Women should inspire’
We’ll be tuning in tonight, but whether the Lionesses emerge victorious or not, this Women’s World Cup and the rightful buzz it has attracted has been a huge success.
‘We are honoured and proud to present the exciting history of women’s football by bringing the FIFA World Football Museum to Paris during the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019 thanks to our esteemed partner Hyundai,’ announced Marco Fazzone, the Managing Director of the FIFA World Football Museum. ‘Our anticipation of the tournament is as great as our enthusiasm for showing fascinating objects and telling great stories, some of which are not yet widely known.’
‘The Women’s Game’ exhibition can be visited at the Jardin Nelson Mandela in Les Halles, Paris, from 15 June until 7 July 2019. Entry to the exhibition is free and it is open every day from 10:00 to 20:00.