World of change: Why women’s football is, at long last, gaining respect

While many organisations still drag their feet, interest in this World Cup shows women’s football is finally gaining respect, writes Moira Gordon

Scotland's Sophie Howard (C) celebrates her goal against Jamaica. Picture: SNS Group

“I would be lying if I said it was never about winning,” said former US football star, Olympic gold medallist and World Cup winner, Julie Foudy. “But there was always this sense of the bigger picture. Could we start a movement to inspire young girls to play? Could we get the world watching women play soccer and women’s sports in general? That bigger picture always loomed.”

Football has always been more than a game. It is a religion to some, a purpose for others, it is what makes people smile, reduces others to tears. It is about team-mates, about discipline, about leadership and about determination. It can also make a very valuable statement.

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On 10 July 1999 more than 90,000 people flocked to a stadium to watch a women’s football match.

It was a significant moment for female sport, as never before had such a massive crowd turned out for any women’s event, but the ’99 World Cup final was a game changer for football.

The crowd was only 22,000 smaller than the total attendance, across 26 matches, at the previous World Cup and it proved that there was a growing appetite for the sport and a tournament that remained in its infancy.

After decades of being shunned by the game’s (male) administrators and banned from competing in several countries around the globe, the 1980s had witnessed a thawing in the relationship as women refused to be left on the outside looking in. Fuelled by their own love of the game, they decided they wouldn’t change their dreams but would strive to change attitudes instead.

The inaugural tournament, contested by 12 teams, in China, in 1991, had signalled acknowledgement. Eight years later, as the USA’s Brandi Chastain netted from the penalty spot to secure a second World Cup success for the host nation, the tone was one of excitement.

Crucially, it was also one of acceptance.

The number of participants in girls’ and women’s football worldwide multiplied and the fanbase grew.

But, as we kick off the latest World Cup, in France this week, there is still a sense that the players are seeking more than just a trophy.

Against a backdrop of sweeping feminism in most industries and more honest conversations about what equality really means, this World Cup, for many, is about respect.

Including Scotland, who will make their World Cup debut, and England, 24 nations from six confederations will contest the trophy currently held by USA and for the first time the VAR system will be in use.

But the world’s top female player, Ada Hegerberg, won’t be there. The Norwegian has made her fight for respect a very public one and says she will boycott the international stage until the women’s game is treated with equality and more than token respect.

Peers and male counterparts have no issue with women they respect as fellow footballers. They see the effort that goes in, the sacrifices that are made, see the pressure and the passion and recognise kindred spirits. Fans are now flocking to see what the fuss is about and finding themselves, on the whole, pleasantly surprised. But, too many national federations, world governing bodies and the game’s administrators are still dragging their feet.

With women treated as second or sometimes third-class citizens when it comes to facilities, opportunities, pay and conditions, last week offered a prime example when France’s women’s team were moved out of their Clairefontaine training base to make way for the men’s squad. One is preparing to open a home World Cup, with their match against South Korea on Friday. The other is playing a friendly against Bolivia.

Respect, it is often stated, is not something that can simply be demanded but has to be earned and for many decades, women have done it the hard way; they have hurdled obstacles and fought prejudice to earn their place on the world stage.

Speaking on the BBC’s Scotland’s Heroes: The Road To France, Scotland head coach Shelley Kerr, pictured, underlined those difficulties. “There was a stigma attached to girls playing football. Every day you were trying to prove that you were worthy of playing football. Not everybody accepted you. Even then I was building my character and resilience because of the people who were against girls playing football.”

The game is evolving, though, as are attitudes. More than 1.3 million people attended matches at the 2015 finals and more than 750 million people worldwide watched the final on television. This summer one billion people are expected to tune in to the games in France.

Professionalism and semi-professional opportunities are burgeoning on several continents, there are categories for women at end-of-season awards, including the Women’s Ballon d’Or, female ex-players as pundits displaying their knowledge and an increasing number of stars who are household names.

Negative comments still exist but now men as well as women shoot them down.

There is a gathering momentum, with the world coming a long way from the Mia Hamm doll. This tournament there may not be a Hegerberg or a Hamm but Marta, one of the greatest players of all time, will surely have her last chance at winning the trophy with Brazil.

She will have to share the stage with others, though, with compatriot Geyse creating a stir and Lieke Martens, Barcelona’s Dutch master, and Germany’s Melanie Berhinger included in Fifa world player of the year lists.

But, while they and others, including Phil Neville’s England, fancy their chances of lifting the cup aloft, they will have to prise it free of USA’s grasp.

The only nation to have won it three times, they are a country still building on the solid foundations laid by Hamm, Foudy and Co.

“I remember [former USA coach] Anson Dorrance always saying that every time we stepped on the field we were selling our game,” said Hamm when recalling that period. Now they are not the only ones. After decades of battling for brands, broadcasters and fans to take notice, a raft of big brand commercial deals ahead of this World Cup suggest women’s football is now a major player and the marketing men are no longer afraid to sell the game in all its unvarnished glory.

“I grew up always good at sports, but being a girl, I was never allowed to feel as good about it as guys were,” Hamm once stated. “My toughness wasn’t celebrated.” But times have changed.

The response to the USA team in 1999 was ground-breaking, though. That was when she realised, it was “OK to want to be the best.”

Two decades on, every single player who takes to a pitch in France between now and 7 July knows it isn’t simply OK, it is their unashamed burning ambition.