A Boxing Day football match at Goodison Park, Liverpool, 1920, drew a crowd of 53,000. Another 14,000 were turned away at the gate. This wasn’t a Merseyside derby featuring Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney’s 1920s counterparts, however. It was Dick, Kerr’s Ladies playing St Helen’s Ladies. A women’s football match. And it had far a greater attendance than men’s football matches.
The following year, the FA took the only logical course of action. It duly banned women from playing football, deeming the sport “quite unsuitable for women”.
How quaint. And how damaging to the development of the women’s game.
Women’s football didn’t experience a resurgence until the 1970s – the ban in Britain was only lifted in 1971. Here in Aotearoa, while organised women’s football dates back to the 1920s, the very first version of the New Zealand national women’s team only played its first game in 1975. The first Women’s World Cup only began in 1988, when an invite-only version of the tournament was held to see if it was worth holding regularly.
As a result, more often than not when we talk about football, we’re talking about possessors of the Y chromosome. By default, when we talk about football, we’re talking about the game as it’s played and administrated for boys and men. We only know we’re talking about women’s football when we call it that: women’s football.
A case in point is some of the recent social media chatter about the Women’s Knockout Cup, the country’s premier women’s knockout football competition. Who would know if we were talking about men kicking balls or women kicking balls if we didn’t make it crystal clear in the name of the tournament: Women’s Knockout Cup. Which is a bit bland.
It might be argued that part of this is borne of necessity. Football, after all, was by default a men-only sport until the 1970s. With a lag like that in the officially sanctioned versions of the sport, it’s only to be expected that, in order to know that we’re talking about the women’s game, we need make it perfectly clear that we’re talking about WOMEN’S FOOTBALL and not MEN’S FOOTBALL.
Or is it? Only a few weeks ago, Arsenal dropped the word ‘ladies’ from their women’s team name, opting instead for the less pejorative ‘women’. But wait, there’s more:
“For formal purposes we will be renamed as Arsenal Women Football Club. The name Arsenal Women will be used sparingly, primarily to avoid any confusion with the men’s team.”
“Video and pictures will make it clear which team we are talking about. We will wherever possible refer to our Women’s team as, simply, ‘Arsenal’ – just as we do our Men’s team.”
“This is a clear signal of togetherness and unity and is more in keeping with modern day thinking on equality.”
Personally, I think this is brilliant. I don’t like that, historically, conditions have dictated that we need to distinguish between the two – it’s just football to me. As Descartes meant to say, I football, therefore I footballer.
So when it comes down to it, there’s a lot to be said about women’s football, both globally and right here in Aotearoa New Zealand. There’s the FFDP which began this year, there’s the divide between the amateur and professional games, the Futsal Ferns played their very first games this week. The Football Ferns have a two-game series against the US, the best women’s team in the world, kicking off tomorrow. National Women’s League starts again in October, and in 2018 will move to a full two round format.
Over the next month or so, until the National Women’s League begins, In the back of the net will be exclusively focussed on women’s football. All posts will be about women’s football, from grassroots to Football Ferns, and will be written by women. Myself, Helena and Tracey will be the main contributors, and we’ve got some exciting guest posts lined up too.
As regular readers of In the back of the net will know, we’re players and fans of football. We love this sport, we love what football gives us – the friendships, the memories, the experiences, the victories, even the stinky dirty kits, and occasional trips to the physio and A&E. We want to give something back and contribute to the sport that we love.
We want this to be the beginning of a kōrero on women’s football, not the kōrero itself. We hope the articles, interviews and reflections published during the next month will challenge, inform, affirm, give cause to re-evaluate and, hopefully, contribute to a change in how we think about and engage with women’s football.
In this vein, then, some requests for those reading and contributing to the kōrero. We’re trying to make this a space in which women’s voices are amplified. Male voices tend to drown out females in much the same way coverage of men’s sport drowns out that of women’s.
It’s in acknowledgement of this that I’m asking the guys who read this to consider how they engage with the material that’s going to be published over the next few weeks. We’d love for you to take part, of course, but please let the conversation flourish and be directed by the women. While now is a time to talk, it’s also a time for some to sit back and listen.
As the Guardian’s head of sport reflected recently on the past few months of summer sport in Europe, during which the women’s cricket world cup, women’s Euro 2017 were held, coverage – and consumption of – women’s sport and its media reached new levels:
“In a summer without an Olympics or a men’s football World Cup, these events have been able to elbow their way into the public consciousness. They have done so entirely on their own terms”.
And there’s the clincher. People naturally gravitated towards following these teams and tournaments, helped in part by the scheduling of the tournament coinciding with a lack of male sport to drown it out (transfer sagas aside). The elimination of the dominating stories of men’s football opens up some space for new, different stories to be told and heard. On their own terms.
I hope that those reading and taking part in this series over the next month or so get into the spirit in which this series is intended – as a celebration of women’s football in Aotearoa New Zealand, as well as an examination of where we are at and looking at ways forward. Because imagine if we could reach the interest levels of 1920, where over 50,000 people went to watch a women’s football match.
Let’s do this.
Waiheke Islander currently in exile in Wellington. Supporter of Nottingham Forest and England, through thick and thin (there's been plenty of that). As a player is somewhat averse to the offside rule.