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The rise, fall, and rise again of women's football – a 140-year history

Rise of women's football
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Women’s football is now flourishing around the world, with clubs and nations embracing one of the fastest-growing sports. But it hasn’t always been that easy. Whether it be resentment from supporters or even the national associations themselves, the women’s game has had to continually break down endless barriers, from its inception in the 19th century to today.

Whether it be the early boom the women’s game enjoyed, some of the legendary early trailblazers of the sport or the modern-day superstars we now know, the women’s game has gone from strength to strength, but still experiences challenges and prejudices despite its ever-growing global appeal.

The sport has continued to grow over the past half-century with the introduction of official worldwide tournaments, ever-increasing crowds and big TV deals, and it can now be said that women’s football is thriving. However, its history and the challenges it has faced to get to where it is should never be forgotten. So join us, as we chart some of the key events the sport has fought through since the late 19th century.

In the beginning

The accuracy regarding the early days of women’s football is somewhat questionable, to say the least. But that’s not to say it’s hopeless – thanks to legend, along with some in-depth research, modern-day enthusiasts of one of the world’s quickest-growing sports have been able to learn about the formation of the women’s game, both in the UK and around the world.

The first known football games played by women stretch all the way back to the 19th century, specifically 1881, and the foundation of the first club in the UK four years later – the British Ladies’ Football Club. The now well-known name of Nettie Honeyball, the founder, first secretary and club captain of the British Ladies, is and was one of the first legendary spearheads of the women’s game.

Honeyball persuaded then Tottenham Hotspur manager, JW Julian, to coach the team after she managed to gather 30 women to train at Alexandra Park in Hornsey on a weekly basis. One of the first known women’s games occurred on 23 March 1885 at Crouch End, with an apparent crowd of around 10,000 supporters. The match was between two teams of women from north and south London, with the north side winning 7-1.

Even in its absolute infancy, there was a clear appetite among the paying public for women’s football, with crowds regularly in the thousands as people came out to watch the women’s game. When World War I started, the rise of women working in various sectors started a boom of new women’s teams, and by the end of the war and the start of the 1920s, there were more than 150 amateur women’s teams across the UK as the sport continued to gather interest around the country.

But across a period that would span over half a century, women’s football encountered plenty of resistance, both in England and around Europe, as those in charge of the game began to look upon it as a threat. The progress of one of the nation’s fastest-growing sports was unnecessarily hindered and held back.

The peak and the fall

It was just as women’s football was starting to grow and garner crowds that at times exceeded that of its male equivalent, that everything was brought to a halt, in a moment which is now renowned in women’s football history.

On 5 December 1921, the Football Association effectively banned women’s football, brandishing it “quite unsuitable” for women to play football. Although the sport itself wasn’t technically banned, the ruling ensured that FA member clubs and grounds would not be able to host any women’s football matches.

Some speculated those in the men’s game felt threatened by the rapid rise of the women’s game, with women in sport viewed very differently to modern-day attitudes. With some games attracting crowds of over 50,000 supporters, there was never any proof the ban was anything to do with growing attendances, but some women’s games were starting to attract larger crowds than their male equivalents.

Thankfully the ban did not stop the hundred-plus clubs who had formed during World War I. The independent English Ladies’ Football Association was founded and games were played at local rugby clubs who were not affected by the widespread ban brought on by the FA.

Several competitions were created, including the Munitionettes’ Cup, aptly named given the image of female munition factory workers had become so common during the war. Many women enjoyed kickabouts during work breaks as more and more women moved into roles they had previously been deemed unsuitable for.

With the men’s football league suspended as the war escalated, more and more people had been coming out to see women play football, with most of the games put on solely to raise money for war charities. But once the war was over and women returned to so-called more appropriate jobs, the sport faced its banishment.

The ELFA initially had a league of 57 teams filled with amateur players from around the country, offering an opportunity for women to continue playing the sport they loved, even if it was all deemed unofficial. The rules of the game were altered, with smaller pitches, the use of lighter balls and even the use of hands were allowed to protect a player’s face.

The ELFA Cup was introduced a year later in 1922, with the final four teams made up of Huddersfield Atalanta, Doncaster Bentleys, Stoke and Ediswan, after an initial 22 sides had entered the first edition of the unofficial cup competition.

Unfortunately the ELFA was short-lived, but it still managed to build a foundation for a sustained interest in women’s football, even if it was deemed unacceptable by the FA. Teams like Dick, Kerr’s Ladies continued to thrive, but it would be half a century before the FA overturned the ban on the women’s game. 

Around the world

Sadly, women’s football in some of Europe’s major countries was experiencing exactly the same kind of issues as it was in England, in almost exactly the same time period.

Where the sport had begun to flourish across the continent, associations in Europe were also threatened by the apparent rise of the women’s game, as had been the case with the Football Association. The result was many doing exactly what had been done in England – effectively banning women from playing the sport.

In France, they’d gone as far as having a proper league set up in 1918 by their own independent women’s football federation, led by one of the nation’s greatest women’s football pioneers, Alice Milliat. It took a little longer than in England for a ban to come about, but it did so in 1932 and the sport was not re-established in the country until 1975, when the French Football Federation made funds available for the league to restart and amateur and semi-professional sides to start competing again.

In other countries, it was a similar story. Germany had a rich history of women playing football, stretching all the way back to the 18th century. The first clubs were formed in the 1920s after World War I and lasted the test of time, almost three decades before the German Football Association declared in 1955 that they would no longer permit women into the association. 

As in England, there were discussions in the 1960s about women starting up their own football association, but nothing ever materialised. It took until 30 October 1970 for the German Football Association to allow women players again, but with significant rule changes. They were only allowed to play in warm weather, football boots with studs were banned and games would only last 70 minutes. A league was formed in 1971 and the first championship took place in 1974, won by TuS Wörrstadt.

Spain endured similar issues, with women forbidden to play football between 1930 and 1975, after an initial boom of the sport in the early 20th century. The Spanish Football Federation amazingly didn’t recognise women’s football as a sport until very early in the 1980s, and there was no national league created until 1988.

In Italy, the National Olympic Committee prevented women from being able to play tournaments and any individual matches before an Italian Women’s Football Federation was formed in 1968 and an Italian Championship created. The Italian federation became one of the strongest in Europe as clubs embraced the sport and many players from all around the continent, including from England, moved to Italy in search of professional football.

A new era

Fifty years after the ban on women’s football in the UK had first been implemented in 1921, it was finally overturned in 1971. Women’s football could officially be played at football stadiums around the country again. Sadly, all progress had been shattered, with women’s football no longer in the public consciousness.

The Women’s Football Association, established in 1969 (before the ban was lifted) to help re-establish the women’s game in the country, did a lot of good work but was largely run by volunteers and suffered from a lack of funds. However, the passionate people who were involved have gone down in English women’s football history for the part they played in getting the women’s game back off the ground.

One of them, Arthur Hobbs, was the first secretary and one of the founding members of the WFA, but sadly only lasted a year in the role due to ill health. He was replaced by Patricia Gregory, who led the WFA for a decade. The work she did in building the game up means that 50 years later, her name is still known among current followers of the sport. 

With women’s football allowed to be played on member club grounds again, the FA Cup (named the Mitre Trophy at the time) was established a year later, as was the official England women’s national team, now affectionately known as the Lionesses.

With 44 founder member clubs involved, an official FA Cup and a national team, the WFA had done an incredible job of dragging the women’s game back from the dead, with the first England game taking place against Scotland in Greenock on 18 November 1972. Under the careful guidance of head coach Eric Worthington, England ran out 3-2 winners, with the legendary Sylvia Gore scoring the very first goal in the history of the national team.

In 1970-71, the first women’s FA Cup was held, with teams from around the UK invited to participate, and it was Southampton who ran out as first-time winners, beating Scottish side Stewarton Thistle 4-1 in the final. Southampton would go on to win the next two finals.

Then in 1983, the WFA affiliated to the FA on the same basis as the County Football Associations. This move paved the way for the FA to establish its own women’s football division to run the game in the early 1990s, after the Women’s Football Association ceased to exist under apparent pressure from the FA. The running of the sport was returned to the Football Association 70 years after it had banned it.  

International recognition

Women's World Cup 1991

(Image credit: Getty Images)

While women’s football was just starting up again in the UK, things were beginning to thrive around the world. In 1970, the first unofficial Ladies World Championship took place in Italy, before a second edition followed a year later in Mexico.

The first official women’s international match took place between France and the Netherlands on 17 April 1971, in the small French town of Hazebrouch, and many other nations around the world were starting to take the women’s game more seriously as the UK played catch-up under the watchful guise of the Women’s Football Association.

In just over a decade, women’s football exploded around the world, with a first official European Championships in 1984 and a first World Cup just seven years later. Three years before the official World Cup, an unofficial tournament had been held as a trial run in China, with the Asian country also hosting the first official tournament in 1991.

The first European Championships was a modest affair, with only four teams taking part in the ‘official’ part of the tournament, after a qualifying campaign to narrow down to the final four participants – England, Denmark, Sweden and Italy.

Held at stadiums across Europe, England beat Denmark in a two-legged affair to set up a two-legged home and away final with Sweden, which the Swedes came out on the right side of in a tense penalty shootout at Luton Town’s Kenilworth Road in front of 2,567 supporters.

The match saw names such as Pia Sundhage represent the visitors, and the tournament was a precursor for national teams around the world to increase participation in women’s football ahead of the first World Cup seven years later, with the later-to-be all-conquering US women’s national team formed a year after the first European Championships.

It was a challenge getting the first edition of the Women’s World Cup off the ground, despite several unofficial worldwide tournaments. One of them, the Mundialito, initially became a success after being held in Japan in 1981 and in Italy in the four years that followed. It was won three times by Italy and twice by England. Nations such as Japan, USA and China, all flew over to Europe to compete in what was the closest thing the women’s game had at the time to a World Cup, with Mundialito translating to ‘little’ World Cup in Spanish.

With many countries overturning bans on women’s football, the FIFA Congress organised an invitational tournament in China in 1988 as a test run to see if a full official World Cup would be feasible. Twelve nations took part and after 45,000 supporters attended the opening match between China and Canada, the tournament was deemed a success. After Norway beat Sweden 1-0 in the final, FIFA approved a full World Cup to be hosted once again by China in 1991.

Again, 12 teams competed and large crowds flocked to games, particularly involving the hosts, and this time it was the USA who walked away with their first of what would become five World Cup trophies in a tournament that led the way for the game to continue growing all around the world.

Unbanned and a new life

Back in England, two years after the first World Cup, the Football Association took back control of running the women’s game, with the WFA disbanded. The FA was keen to increase participation levels, with England having not qualified for the first World Cup in 1991, however, not everyone was happy with how the association was leading the game, despite taking the likes of the league and FA Cup in-house.

The league became known as the Women’s Premier League in 1992 to parallel the rebranding of the men’s top division a year later, and the 1990s saw the emergence of some key figureheads across the game such as Rachel Yankey, Faye White, Kelly Smith and Marieanne Spacey. It was far from perfect, but it was paving the way for the sport to grow in England after losing 50 years of progress due to the ban that had lasted until 1971.

Clubs such as Arsenal and iconic names like Doncaster Rovers Belles and Millwall Lionesses became the top sides, having a stranglehold on both the league and the FA Cup, except for Croydon’s cup win in 1996. Cup finals were taken across the country and held in front of modest crowds, but generally always a few thousand supporters would turn out to watch the teams battle. 

A global reckoning was happening. Across Europe, other countries had also lifted bans on the sport and were taking the game in-house to their own associations, with varying degrees of success. Spurred on by seeing the huge crowds that flocked to see top-level international football in China, nations were beginning to understand what the women’s game could offer, even if not financially at the time.

The England national team, led by Ted Copeland who had been put in place by the FA in 1993, qualified for the 1995 World Cup in Sweden and took a squad to the tournament that included the likes of Hope Powell, Gill Coultard, Karen Walker, Mary Phillip, as well as Spacey.

The squad made it out of their group, beating Canada 3-2 in their opening game, but then fell to a much stronger Germany side, who ended up beating the England side 3-0 in the quarter-finals.

England were certainly progressing in the game, but needed to push harder to not only keep up with their rivals, but to surpass them. After failing to qualify for the next two World Cups in 1999 and 2003, it was clear that the game in England needed a reshuffle. While nations around the world were flourishing, the Lionesses were doing the opposite.

A brave new dawn

Forty years after the ban on women’s football was lifted, England took a step into a new era when the FA Women’s Super League was established in 2011. It marked a major tick off the list, with eight licensed teams competing, all stacked with recognised England stars and a smattering of foreign talent, as well as a TV deal with ESPN and modest crowds coming out to support the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and so on.

The league was the brainchild of Sally Horrox, who was asked to see if a well-financed and licensed league was possible. The FA was wary that a professional league in the USA several years earlier had gone bust because of over-spending.

Clubs were required to prove they could finance themselves for the first two years, having to match the money they were given by the FA, as well as having the facilities and the squad to compete in a top-level competition. In many ways, England was the leader in taking the first steps towards what would ultimately become a fully fledged professional league, while other nations were already well on their way, and some others followed off the success of others.

England had qualified for the 2007 World Cup a few years earlier and with attention increasing, the BBC aired their 2011 quarter-final against France, which ultimately led to penalty shootout heartbreak after Faye White and Claire Rafferty missed.

Across several consecutive seasons, FA Cup finals had attendances of five figures, even increasing to over 20,000 supporters in the stand three years in a row. On the continent, a European Cup had been created at the start of the 21st century, with the first final played in front of 12,000 supporters who saw the then German giants FFC Frankfurt take the title.

After being rebranded as the Champions League to move in line with the men’s equivalent after less than a decade, European finals were now the biggest of occasions, with Lyon and Wolfsburg starting to dominate and an incredible 50,000 supporters coming out to watch the 2012 final between Lyon and FFC Frankfurt in Munich, while England hosted the 2011 and 2013 finals at Craven Cottage and Stamford Bridge respectively.

The sport was starting to drive itself and there was proof it was being embraced all around the world, with the USA coming back with another league set up several years later, while Australia created its W-League in 2008 and China created their own Women’s Super League in 2015. Leagues around Europe were continuing to flourish as the game moved towards its modern-day peak.

Modern-day boom

The 2015 World Cup in Canada marked a huge turning point for women’s football, not just across the world, but specifically in England. Under the guidance of Welsh head coach Mark Sampson and with household names such as Steph Houghton, Ellen White and Lucy Bronze in the squad, England went on an unprecedented run that captured the nation like the women’s game had never done before.

After coming from behind against Norway, in a game where Bronze announced herself to the world with a stunning winner, England reached the semi-finals for the first time after beating hosts Canada in front of 54,000 of their own supporters in Vancouver. After a heartbreaking stoppage-time loss to defending champions Japan in the semi-finals, England bounced back to bring home a first-ever medal with a first-ever win against Germany a few days later. Women’s football was suddenly thrust into the public eye, with attendances increasing in the immediate short-term when the FA WSL started up again just a week later.

The FA WSL took the decision to move from a summer league to a winter league a few years later and restructured, opening up licence applications that allowed the likes of West Ham United, Leicester City, Sheffield United and ultimately Manchester United to either create a women’s team, or move up the leagues based on licence requirements.

Over the last few years, the FA WSL has witnessed a huge increase in supporters for one-off games played at men’s stadiums, with all of the Etihad, Emirates, Stamford Bridge, Anfield and Old Trafford stadiums hosting top-level women’s football games, with thousands and thousands turning out to watch their teams. Almost 80,000 supporters flooded into Wembley in 2019 to watch England take on Germany in a friendly, something that was once unthinkable for a sport that had been banned for half a century.

Around the world, the success has been the same. The NWSL in the USA is flourishing year-by-year, spurred on by the unprecedented recent success and back-to-back World Cup titles of the national team and the influence of worldwide star names such as Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd.

In 2017, Netherlands fans got behind their nation like the sport had never seen before and helped the hosts win their first European Championships, with fans marching through cities coated head to tail in orange to support their new stars and idols.

The Women’s FA Cup final moved to Wembley Stadium in 2015, with every final bar one played behind closed doors attracting over 30,000 supporters. The last three saw numbers swell to over 40,000. Champions League finals also regularly have attendances well into the thousands, and broadcasters around the world are now flocking to air women’s football.

After BT Sport had a deal to show the WSL in England, Sky Sports and BBC made the move to show an unprecedented amount of games from the 2021/22 season, while global streaming service DAZN signed a long-term deal at the start of the new season to show every single UEFA Champions League match on its platforms, with a pay-per-view deal due to launch after next season.

Women’s football is now flourishing in almost every corner of the world. Australia and New Zealand will host the next World Cup in 2023, while European nations are queuing up to host the next European Championships in 2025. Every year the sport is seeing more and more big clubs around the world, such as Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Borussia Dortmund, starting to embrace and increase funding and support for its women’s teams. The Liga MX in Mexico is already seeing some of the most passionate and vibrant support for its clubs, despite only getting off the ground a couple of years ago. 

There is no doubt now that those who have pioneered women’s football and women in football over the past few decades, can feel satisfied that they have helped ensure the sport is heading in the right direction, as both participation and interest continues to increase worldwide. 

This article first appeared in the Ultimate Guide to Women’s Football, available with free delivery now (opens in new tab), or in WH Smiths in the UK and Barnes & Noble in the US

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