Few football fans would dispute that there’s been a prodigious rise in the popularity of women’s football over the last decade. The 2019 Women’s World Cup in France is achieving unprecedented media coverage and, with so many of football’s major clubs now boasting women’s teams – comprising a number of age groups, as well as a first team, reflecting the format for men – there seems little doubt that this trend is set to continue.
I spoke to Lynsey Hooper, co-founder of The Offside Rule, to get an accurate assessment of the state of women’s football; not only where it is now, but where it’s been and where it can go in the future – the how, the why and, perhaps most importantly, the why not.
As well as her work alongside Kait Borsay and the team at The Offside Rule – who are putting out podcasts every day during the finals in France – Lynsey is a broadcaster, journalist and presenter working for, amongst others, such august bodies as the Premier League and BBC. Any listener to the These Football Times series of podcasts will also be aware of Lynsey’s voice as her fluids tones introduce every episode for us.
Graciously, despite inevitably being engaged in travelling around France covering the tournament at the moment, Lynsey found some time to sit down, answer a few questions, and paint a picture about women’s football. I began by delving into the history of the game in England and how the FA’s ban on women playing organised football at the grounds used by member clubs between 1921 and 1971 held back the development of the game.
There was little ambiguity in her reply: “It damaged the game hugely,” she insisted. “I don’t think the sport has ever truly recovered from the impact of that decision. This World Cup is the first time we are seeing women’s football getting more of the spotlight in UK press but it easily put the game behind by 50 years, if not more, considering the attendances in the early 1900s compared to now and taking into factor the growing population in that 100 or so years.”
Given the vehement response, I wondered if there was a general feeling of bitterness about the way women’s football had been treated by the organisation supposedly set up to be the guardian of the game’s future and development. Perhaps surprisingly, there appeared to be little, with the future being more important than any lament about the past and any disrespects suffered.
“I don’t like to think too long and hard about where the game would be now if that hadn’t happened, because it did happen and we can’t change it,” she offered sagely. “Whats and ifs won’t solve the situation,” Lynsey added. “I’m more interested in the solutions that are being put in place now to rectify things and get women’s football back to the level it should have always been enjoying.”
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The subject moved from British shores, contrasting how much more the developed the game appears on the continent, focusing on the successes of some of the clubs whose history hadn’t been blighted by a ban lasting half a century. A recent women’s game between Atlético Madrid and Barcelona attracted a crowd of more than 60,000 fans. Lyon have dominated European competition for years and Serie A is becoming a go-to league.
How quickly, then, can English football catch up to their continental peers? “I think it’s well on the way, if not already there,” Hooper states. “The number of fully professional sides now competing in England has been a real attraction to players from abroad. The number of internationals we see coming to England is a reflection on how well regarded the WSL is.”
Asking for illustrations of that, Lynsey had any number to hand. “You wouldn’t attract the likes of Miedema, O‘Reilly and Ji if it wasn’t.” There was also recognition of the journey remaining to be travelled. “However, more can still be done to make English sides dominant across Europe. We are only a few years into the professionalisation of the game, so success on that stage will follow. We saw Chelsea make the semi-finals of the Champions League this year so the quality is there, but we are probably a few years away from challenging teams like Lyon, as it’s a case of them having more time and backing in their favour.”
Hooper was also quick to flag up the importance of the game at a grassroots level to encourage more young girls to take up the sport. “Grassroots is equally as important to address those pathways from school to club to country and make it more viable for talented young girls to see football as a possible career. I really believe that time is now here.
“I am hopeful that growth in attendances can also follow but I think that is the toughest job the FA faces as scheduling for the women’s game can be particularly problematic. I really sympathise – that’s why we need to seize opportunities like the World Cup where there’s little in the way of competition for viewers and bring new fans to the game.”
Lynsey’s mentioning of English clubs provoked another thought. The top women’s clubs in England are also the top men’s clubs – Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal. Is this good, bad or indifferent for the future of women’s football? Might the women’s game always be in the shadow of the men’s team at such clubs and seen as an adjunct to them?
“Fundamentally I think it is a good thing,” she says. “We can’t rewrite history so we need to accept that the football fans that already exist, and have a deep-rooted passion for their club, are likely to want to support the same women’s team. It certainly hasn’t hindered Manchester United, who are getting the largest attendances and are newly re-formed, so that would indicate it’s something we can capitalise on. The comparison to men’s football and a need to try and devalue the women’s game is all about trying to change people’s mindsets or subconscious gender bias.”
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Inevitably, it seems, football is often described as a mirror of society, it’s perceptions, attitudes and norms. It’s clearly something Lynsey thinks is a key issue. “It’s the responsibility of us as a society to catch up, to be more forward-thinking and challenge attitudes through education, parenting and experience. We don’t all have to remain narrow-minded for the rest of our lives, just because we always thought things were one way. Evolving as people is clearly the issue and, as with anything, some get left behind, while others are first to the front of the queue. People need to decide which they want to be. You always hope for the latter.”
The topic moved to women’s Ballon d’Or winner, Ada Hegerberg, and her reasons for withdrawing from the Norway squad at World Cup. There was plenty of empathy for the stance Hegerberg had felt compelled to take. “I feel for her,” Lynsey says. “I think it’s pretty devastating that she feels she needs to make this stance. She is sacrificing her best playing years, missing out on major tournaments and possible medals, which means this is clearly something she feels very strongly about. Who are we to question that?
“She is using what power she has as the current best player in the world to try and implement change, and for that I think she should be applauded. Not many sportsmen or women would be willing to make the sacrifices she has. Ultimately, she is having to forgo doing the thing she loves the most to most likely benefit others – she may be past her best by the time change comes – which is extremely selfless. I think that, whatever your opinion on whether she should be playing or not, you can’t help but admire how principled and determined she has been.”
Given the current controversy in the United States regarding the authorities and the apparent reluctance to financially reward the USWNT on an equal footing with the men’s team, it allowed me to bring up one of the more controversial games of the World Cup. Did the USA’s 13-goal victory over Thailand expose a big division in quality across the teams competing there, something many have argued shouldn’t happen at a major finals?
“I think the USA-Thailand example at this tournament has been a one-off. It’s the two extremes of the game,” she said, going on to explain that, “one nation who have been the most successful in world football coming up against another nation at the other end of the pyramid, not yet professional, nor nationally supported.”
Are things flattening out then? “It used to be so much worse. I remember watching tournaments when only four or five teams were expected to compete and all of the others got a drubbing. The gulf has certainly narrowed. Look at the performances from Argentina, Nigeria and Italy for instance – certainly by no means stalwarts of the women’s game yet they are able to really compete and, in some cases, spring surprises.
“Everyone will remember the 13 goal scoreline and in my opinion that will mask the fact that lots of the so-called ‘smaller’ or ‘newer’ nations competing in France have been able to more than hold their own. Every team has to start somewhere and as countries around the world start to realise that women’s sport is just as deserving of the backing that men’s get, then that will be reflected on the pitch. In the meantime, for many, the struggle is very much still real.”
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Mentioning the men’s game took us to the male coaches of national teams at the World Cup? Could she ever see a woman coaching one of the 92 league clubs as has happened in France for example? If that seems a far-off prospect to many of the more traditional football fans, Lynsey would be quick to take exception to such opinions.
“This all harps back to opportunities. Opportunities that weren’t there for women until fairly recently. So, it’s a case of playing catch up, but catch up we will. I’m convinced of that,” she insisted.
There was also little reluctance to offer examples and a firm assertion. “The fact that Emma Hayes’ name gets mentioned when vacancies arise in the men’s game in England is evidence that we are moving forward in this area. This would never have happened even as recently as two years ago. So things are changing quickly and we have to take encouragement from that. If you were to ask me will it consistently happen then I would be more reserved, there’s still so much work to be done bringing through top female coaches for that to be the case, but as a one-off – yes absolutely. I think a woman will be managing a men’s team in England very soon.”
So what of Lynsey’s opinion on Phil Neville’s appointment to head up the Lionesses. This was less about him being male than the fact that although he had been coaching for some time, he had no previous managerial experience at all. “I think if we are wanting to break down barriers ourselves then we can’t put them up the other way,” Lynsey explained, taking up a holistic review that revealed a strong logic. “A talented football coach is a talented football coach, so male or female, former pro or non-pro, as long as they are qualified why shouldn’t they be considered?”
It was a totally reasonable point of view – but does the appointment of a man not hinder the progress that women can make, considering there are only so many jobs available? “I actually think that success for Phil would benefit the women’s game hugely,” she replied. “He has not been afraid to take on this job and I’m sure many more will now follow because he has crossed the so-called divide.”
Time was pressing, but ahead of the interview, I’d conducted an admittedly very unscientific poll on Twitter covering a few points about the World Cup, and wanted to run them past Lynsey, asking her for any thoughts she had on the results.
The first poll revealed 64 percent of responders didn’t consider the World Cup better or worse than the men’s version, agreeing instead that it was merely different. Lynsey placed herself among the majority view. “I’d agree with the majority here. If we stop comparing it like for like and appreciate it as a sport in its own right, we will all enjoy it much more.”
When asked whether the World Cup was more or less entertaining than the men’s version, 60 percent said it was about the same. “Again, I’m with the 60 percent. I have worked as a reporter in men’s and women’s football for over a decade and I see some utter dross in both and, equally, some entertaining, riveting matches that I want to relive again over and over. I have seen mistakes in the men’s games and mistakes in the women’s game. I have seen pieces of individual skill that have received an audible gasp and a 40-yard volley that’s flown into the top corner by both male and female players. Anyone who says anything different hasn’t watched enough of either.”
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When asked about watching the World Cup, 61 percent had only seen “a little” of the tournament. Due to her role in France, it was a similar case for Lynsey. “Personally, I’d say England a lot but the tournament a little. I try and watch as many games as I can, but sometimes we are travelling between venues and cities and you miss key matches. I’m spending most of my time watching highlights and listening to our daily podcast [at the] The Offside Rule to keep across everything that is going on. It’s one of the bizarre realities of working at a major tournament – that you never get to see as much actual football as you do if you’re watching at home.”
Unfairly, the players’ skill level has been cast, even in some major media outlets, in a negative light when compared to men’s football, but given the rise in popularity and the resultant financial rewards, the next poll suggested that such perception may be changing. Half of the people responding said they had been impressed by the level of skill on display at the World Cup, with only 20 percent stating that they’d been unimpressed.
“[I was] In the stadium for England’s play that resulted in Nikita Parris’ reverse nutmeg in the Scotland game that went viral after the match.” In that moment, she confessed to “inwardly punching the air because I knew a massive audience would be watching at home and I thought, ‘that might shut a few people up.’”
One swallow doesn’t make a summer of course, but Lynsey pointed out that it wasn’t an isolated case. “If we are talking skill,” she explained. “I want to mention Correa, Endler and Alexander who have all had amazing performances in goal and pulled off top saves in front of a global audience. Goalkeepers have come in for so much criticism in women’s football over the years and the performances we have seen so far have done much to put to that to bed.”
One of the measures of success of the tournament may well be gauged by how many people watching on TV, or indeed at games, will be persuaded to watch more women’s football. The results of my survey may suggest that there’s plenty of convincing still to do: only 27 percent said they would be more likely to do so, with 37 percent saying they won’t be again.
Lynsey states: “If we are honest, I think the bulk of the new audience are watching because the matches are on terrestrial television. We may live in a digital age but the viewing figures can’t hide how much more profile the Lionesses are getting because the BBC are showing them. I want this to be the case for as long as possible because as soon as you put it behind a paywall then that’s when you stop growing the audience.”
Finally, as someone old enough to remember the last time a senior England team was crowned as champions of the world, I was interested to note that 45 percent of responders stated it would mean a lot to them if Neville could lead the Lionesses to triumph in France, with only 28 percent not really bothered. “I’m not an overly teary or emotional person,” she declared. “But I think I would cry. Not only for the girls on the pitch and what they will have achieved but for the generations behind them that will grow up knowing women are capable of anything, because you can’t delete or forget history no matter how hard people have tried to. That’s the message that will be most important from this World Cup.”
By Gary Thacker @All_Blue_Daze