Women’s football is making strides across the world, with the success of an El Clasico Champions League quarter-final followed up in the UK.
Last Sunday afternoon, as Chelsea were mercilessly carving through Leicester City to score their fifth first-half goal in the Women’s Super League, dissenting voices appeared on social media. They already saw women’s football to be a pointless, uncompetitive endeavour that should not be given the platform it has received over the past decade. With that game, which eventually ended 9-0 to the Blues, they hammered home their point of view with a sense of smug self satisfaction.
An undertone of misogyny was masked by their claim that the sport wasn’t good to watch. It wasn’t sexist, they said, it was simply the truth. Women can’t play football and Leicester’s inability to contain Emma Hayes’ incredibly talented, experienced and dominant side was proof of that. That would, of course, be a Chelsea side filled with some of the best players in the world, gunning for a sixth league title and a third in a row, the Champions League runners-up of last season. But their performance and success didn’t count as much as Leicester’s perceived failure. The idea that such a scoreline could happen in the men’s game has never been considered in the realm of this discourse, despite the fact that similarly one-sided matches have occurred in World Cup and Champions League semi finals within the last 10 years, let alone across Europe’s top five leagues.
February 26th: Chelsea 7-0 Leicester
March 27th: Leicester 0-9 Chelsea
Chelsea Women love teaching Leicester a lesson pic.twitter.com/yxhLx9T4nx
— ESPN UK (@ESPNUK) March 27, 2022
It was a way to fit a narrative and fuel a bias. Fortunately, precisely because of the quality shown by teams like Chelsea, and the exposure the WSL has received over recent years, as well as the women’s game as a whole, opinions such as those are much rarer. There are times to take stock and last Sunday was one of them: that game was taking place at Leicester’s King Power Stadium, just a couple of hours after Manchester United had beaten Everton in front of a 20,000-strong crowd at Old Trafford.
Women’s football has grown exponentially over the past seven years particularly; the 2015 World Cup in Canada felt like a seminal moment and it was certainly built upon four years later in France. It was there that the debate over the gender pay gap within the sport increased in volume. USA star Megan Rapinoe was a key voice. Her side have been the dominant force in the game for years and their case was strengthened by a fourth title just a year after the men failed to qualify for their equivalent tournament.
There had to be a serious question asked: if the women couldn’t level the playing field at the top of their game while the men were at such a low point, when could they?
As with many of these calls for change, the first stage is discussion. The argument is now seen as valid and that, at the very least, is a start.
Comparing women’s football in England now to a decade ago is like chalk and cheese, to use a rather tired cliche. In July 2012, as part of a warm-up for the Olympics on home soil, both the men’s and women’s Team GB sides were on display at the Riverside Stadium in Middlesbrough; the former faced Brazil, while the latter tackled Sweden. Neymar’s presence for the opposition made that game the main event, forcing the earlier match into a bit of a sideshow. There were plenty of superb female footballers playing, legends of the English game including Alex Scott, Karen Carney and Kelly Smith, but a drab 0-0 was witnessed by a sparse crowd. In The Guardian’s match report, they stated the press box was the busiest part of the stadium.
It was a far cry from the events of last weekend, in Manchester particularly. There is concrete evidence of growth and improvement for the women’s game, both in terms of quality and exposure. But it is an ever-changing landscape and new highs are being hit all the time; this week’s record crowd, over 91,000, at Camp Nou for the second leg of Barcelona’s El Clasico Champions League quarter-final against Real Madrid was a real mark in the sand.
Just playing at iconic men’s stadia has been viewed as progress. Attracting crowds was always going to be the difficult part. It has to be a gradual process, reflective of the years of hard work going into the growth of the sport. But Barcelona proved what women’s football can be: that night, it was on a true equal footing with the men’s game, receiving the same fanfare, with the same noise and electricity, as any game of that magnitude involving Lionel Messi down the years. It was a historic moment. The Madrid players received all the hostilities, but the magnitude of the game can’t have been lost even on them.
The tie ended 8-3 on aggregate. While the unshakable winning machine left town some years ago on the men’s side, Barcelona Femeni have hit their stride and are on the road to emulating that dynasty. As much as women’s football in England is leaving the dinosaurs behind, looking over in Spain showed they are the trailblazers, setting a standard that is gong to be exciting to follow.
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