How Women’s Soccer Exploded in Britain

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Updated: | Originally published:

“Nic!” Viv Jeffers laughingly bellows at one of her players, whose impressive juggling skills become an unintended soundtrack to our conversation, the thump, thump, thump of the soccer ball bouncing off her cleats. It’s nearing 6 p.m. in the London district of Wapping, where the East London Ladies Football Club’s weekly practice is about to begin. Jeffers, who has been the lead coach and manager of the all-women’s team since 2014, is telling TIME about the club’s history and the role it plays in Britain at a time when women’s soccer—or football, as it’s called outside the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—is blowing up.

“After the Euros, interest hit the roof,” Jeffers says, referencing the victory of the England women’s national team, known as the Lionesses, in last year’s European championship. The East London Ladies, an organization that boasts 200 players aged 2 to 30 across a dozen teams, then began receiving more interest than the club knew how to handle, forcing Jeffers to start a waitlist and direct players toward other clubs. “I don’t know what I’m going to do in the next year, if I’m being honest,” she says.

This problem didn’t exist until relatively recently. When Jeffers and many of her players were growing up, grassroots soccer clubs for women and girls were relatively rare. Many of the East London Ladies came to the sport through their schools, some of which didn’t even have girls teams. Nic Makomva, 28, the expert juggler, says she was the only girl among the boys when she started playing soccer at her South London elementary school at the age of seven.

The opportunities for girls to play soccer “wasn’t really there at all; it wasn’t encouraged as much,” Makomva says. The playground served as a microcosm of how society saw the sport, and who had access to it. “The boys were always playing football,” she says, “The girls were doing other stuff.”

But no longer. Today, women’s soccer is experiencing something of a renaissance in Britain, occupying the airwaves and broader public consciousness like never before. This surge in popularity has been buoyed by high-profile victories such as the 2022 Euros, as well as by increased funding and more favorable coverage in mainstream press that once treated the women’s game as an ineffectual sideshow. With the FIFA Women’s World Cup due to start on July 20 in Australia and New Zealand, women’s soccer will once again be in the international spotlight—one that stands to have profound consequences for Britain and the game as a whole.

The history of women’s soccer in England

Though often dubbed the “world’s game,” soccer’s origin story is thought to be firmly rooted in England. (It’s for this reason that “football’s coming home” has become the unofficial mantra of England’s national teams.) But women playing the game hasn’t always been accepted there. When the first organized women’s soccer teams were established in the country in the 19th century, they were dogged by contemptuous and degrading coverage, much of which centered around the suitability of women playing what was widely seen as a men’s game. “For some reason, the very idea of a woman pushing back against the system holding her down by entering a place of escapism ‘for men’ has always been a step too far for some,” writes British journalist Suzanne Wrack in A Woman’s Game: The Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of Women’s Football.

East London Ladies Football Team
A photo of the first team. Many of the East London Ladies came to the sport through their schools, some of which didn’t even have girls teams.Courtesy East London Ladies Football Team

This didn’t stop women’s soccer from thriving in Britain, though—particularly following the outbreak of World War I. With the nation’s young men shipped off to the trenches and the men’s league suspended, soccer was largely left to the women, many of whom began forming teams within the munitions factories where they worked. Matches were organized as a means to fundraise for the war effort, with some attracting tens of thousands of spectators. This popularity didn’t go unnoticed by the Football Association (FA), soccer’s governing body in England, which didn’t look kindly on the subversion of traditional gender roles or the considerable sums that the sport (and the working-class women within it) was raising. By 1921, a year after more than 50,000 spectators crammed into Liverpool’s Goodison Park stadium for the record-breaking Boxing Day soccer match between the Dick, Kerr Ladies and St Helens Ladies, two prominent teams at the time, the FA voted to ban women’s soccer altogether. The ban would remain in place for 50 years.

When women’s soccer finally returned in 1971, it did so slowly. England’s women wouldn’t make an appearance at a World Cup until 1995. The first professional women’s soccer league didn’t emerge in England until 2018. Even today, women’s soccer in Britain trails that of its peers in the U.S. and elsewhere. It wasn’t long ago that some of the players representing England at the World Cup had to balance their professional soccer careers with part-time jobs such as bagging groceries or serving pizza.

“It’s phenomenal, really, the amount of change that we’ve seen,” says Stacey Pope, an expert in women, sport, and inequality at England’s Durham University and the author of The Feminization of Sports Fandom.

A shifting perception

For years, Pope has been tracking how the media coverage of women’s soccer has changed in Britain and the impact that has had on its overall acceptance and fandom. She says that the 2015 Women’s World Cup, which was the first to have all of its matches televised on the BBC, marked a turning point for the game. “We found that the reporting was not only positive, but it also focused on the sporting skill of the players and the achievements of the England women’s team,” Pope says, noting that the more accessible and respectful coverage helped convert many Britons into fans of the women’s team, including many men.

“​​Because football is so associated with masculinity here in England and it still clings on to that last bastion of male domination, you get a lot of negative attitudes toward women playing football,” she says. “But what I’ve found in terms of looking at research on men and men who are fans of men’s football is that when they saw televised coverage of women’s football, it could actually change their attitudes and they could move from expressing highly misogynistic attitudes or sexist comments to very progressive attitudes.” Pope adds that it’s no accident that women’s soccer fandom tends to be less aggressive and more inclusive than that of the men’s game.

Read More: The Radically Inclusive World of England’s Grassroots Women’s Soccer Clubs

The sheer popularity of women’s soccer was evident in the record-breaking numbers that the women’s game has seen in recent years. England’s Euros triumph was viewed by a television audience of 17.4 million, or nearly a third of England’s population, making it the most-watched women’s soccer match in U.K. television history. An additional 5.9 million streamed the game online. The match also attracted 87,192 in-person spectators, breaking the record for both the men’s and women’s editions of the tournament.

But there is still a long way to go before women’s soccer can reach full parity with the men’s game. Pope says that one challenge facing women’s soccer is the dropoff in coverage after mega events such as the World Cup end. Equal pay is another. Although the FA has paid England’s men’s and women’s national teams equally since 2020, that parity does not yet exist at other levels. According to The Athletic, 16 of the Premier League’s 20 clubs have gender pay gaps that favor men, with some as high as 33%. Among the recommendations included in a landmark review of women’s soccer commissioned by the British government, which was published on July 13, is the introduction of salary floors, as already exists across international women’s leagues in the U.S., Australia, Italy, and Spain.

Another, perhaps more pervasive challenge, is the enduring perception that soccer, while more open to girls and women than ever before, is still fundamentally a lad’s game. “I do oral history interviews, and it’s so depressing when you see the same narratives about access to the sport in school—will the teachers let girls play, will the boys let girls join in,” Pope says. “That could be somebody talking about the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, but they could equally be talking about their daughters’ experiences now.” In March, the British government announced new standards aimed at ensuring equal access to sports in schools.

At the grassroots level, Jeffers says women’s clubs could be better supported through access to proper training facilities (the astroturf pitch the East London Ladies practice on is actually a field hockey pitch, she says, making the surface more dangerous than a standard grass field) and greater representation of women in more senior club roles (she is the only female manager and coach in her league).

“It’s like a battle to be heard,” she says. “We’ve still got a long way to go, I believe.”

Correction, Jul. 25

The original version of this story misstated the year the FIFA Women’s World Cup originally started. It was in 1991, not in the 1970s.

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