Women’s football deserves a cult

Last week, 60 739 people packed into the Wanda Metropolitano to watch Atletico Madrid take on Barcelona, a new global record for women’s club football.

Juventus smashed the Italian maximum a few days later when 39 027 fans flocked to the Allianz Stadium.

READ MORE: Pedersen lifts Juventus women infront of record crowd

These numbers are remarkable but not out of place in recent times. The message coming out of these games is easily interpreted — promote them and host matches in first-rate grounds and women’s football will thrive. Both record-breaking games this month marked the first time the teams had played in their clubs’ home stadiums.

Before that they were relegated to the training grounds and back-up pitches for their professional outings.

If we’re being realistic then we would have to admit that those crowds were partly the product of targeted advertising and free tickets. We can’t expect sell-out crowds week in week out at the moment. But that doesn’t trample on a good start.

Juventus, in particular, are progressing at an incredible pace. The women’s side has been in existence for just two years but, after that weekend game, a 1-0 win against title rivals Fiorentina, they are on course for their second Scudetto. In their short history, they have lost three games.

Players like Sara Gama, leading goalscorer Barbara Bonansea and Englishwoman Eniola Aluko are becoming household names in Turin. Italy has had to sit up in attention to the side that will inevitably form the backbone of their World Cup squad.

Success breeds followings. Followings breed cults. A cult is what we need. Football, like every other professional sport, is a cult.

All cults have charismatic leaders. Golf was forever changed by Tiger Woods. Connor McGregor, who retired this week, leaves mixed martial arts in a position it couldn’t have conceived of when he found it. Ronda Rousey did the same for female fighters.

We need a team like Juventus to succeed. To capture our imaginations in the same way that the step-overs of Paulo Dybala do every weekend.

In a few days, myriad fan websites and blogs of the Old Lady have stated their intent to dedicate more time and resources to the previously ignored side of the club. Those are the kinds of small steps that turn into giant leaps.

It’s understandable why many of us in the 21st century would think a global club phenomenon for women’s football would be a first. There hasn’t been anything close to it in recent memory, after all.

Butsuch an entity did once exist. The Atletico Madrid attendance broke a record that stood for almost a century — according to the English Football Association (FA), over 53 000 fans watched Dick, Kerr’s Ladies smash St Helens Ladies 4-0 at Goodison Park on Boxing Day in 1920.

The story of Dick, Kerr’s is both an example of what’s possible and a lesson of how those possibilities have been deliberately derailed.

As World War I trudged on, Britain sent every boy and man it could to the front line. Women had to support the effort at home by working in factories to produce supplies and munitions. One such company was Dick, Kerr & Co.Women workers founded their team in October 1917 after they beat the factory’s men in the building yard. By Christmas theywere able to attract 10 000 people to watch their 4-0 victory over Arundel Coulthard Factory.

Their reputation spread rapidly and soon they were playing teams around the country in an effort to raise money for those returning home
from the war. The media also played their part in talking up the talent on offer.

“Dick, Kerr were not long in showing that they suffered less than their opponents from stage fright, and they had a better all-round understanding of the game,” the Daily Post wrote. “Their forward work, indeed, was often surprisingly good, one or two of the ladies showing quite admirable ball control.”

After a much-publicised French tour and that record day in Goodison, it appeared as if the team’s popularity, and consequently that of women’s football, had no ceiling. Attendance at their games was rivaling the men’s, after all.

So women’s football was crushed. In December 1921, the FA banned women from playing on any grounds owned by its members, essentially outlawing the game.

“Complaints having been made as to football being played by women,” its resolution said. “Council felt impelled to express the strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged.”

The ban would last for 50 years.

Where would we be had the old men of England’s boardrooms not felt so threatened? It’s purely hypothetical but it’s easy to imagine today’s landscape as vastly different had Dick, Kerr’s and their peers been allowed to stay on their path.

Fortunately, there are a few teams picking up where they left off, and likely to become a cult. Now that the 98-year-old record has been broken, it’s time to break down the way we see and support the game we cherish.

Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.


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