The Making of Women’s Football
Today there are some 30 million women playing association football at professional and amateur levels. The rate of young players coming into the game has doubled in recent years, not least, in part, due to the successes of the FIFA Women’s World Cup and its burgeoning popularity. The most recent tournament, held in France in 2019, was attended by millions and watched by some 1.2 billion people worldwide - this paints a glowing picture of the state of women’s football. However, this has not always been the case...and, even now, it is not the case worldwide.
The Long Road to Success
Like men’s football, much of women’s football started in Europe and particularly in the UK and France. In France, there are records of women taking part in a ball game called La Soule in the 12th century. In the UK there are records of women playing team football as early as the late 18th century.
In the 19th century, men’s football blossomed and spread around the world. Women’s football tried to follow suit but was generally treated with contempt and ridicule. There were many barriers - familial, religious, cultural, governmental and even from official sporting bodies - which prevented the ladies game from beginning to flourish until the late 20th century. In fact, as late as 1985, only a few countries had a national women’s football team. Women being paid as professional players only became a reality in the 21st century!
On every continent, women have had to overcome obstacles such as prejudice, cultural beliefs, sexism, patriarchal societies and a lack of funding and resources to be able to play their sport. Their brave and determined efforts over the years have dramatically turned the tide, and today women’s football is enjoyed and is thriving throughout much of the world. However, there is still a lot to do to ensure equality with men’s association football and to improve worldwide acceptance of the female game.
The development of women’s football is a global story, each continent with a tale to tell…
The History of Women’s Football Around the World
In Europe, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), has 55 member nations, the majority of which have women's national teams. A success story that has taken over a century to achieve.
It is generally accepted that women's football first appeared in Europe and developed there. Apart from the records of La Soule in France, there are records of women playing football in Scotland in the 16th, 18th and 19th centuries. Though, the first records of specific matches between women and on women's teams generally begin in the late 19th century in the UK.
By the early 20th century, women's football was becoming popular in many countries around Europe. Where it was played, women's games attracted large crowds, sometimes larger than those at men's matches.
However, during this period, politics and wars - two World Wars, annexations by Russia, the break-up of the USSR and Czechoslovakia, the Balkan conflicts - had a negative impact on football. This was particularly true for women's football, which took second place (and, in some cases, was banned) to aid the recovery of the men's game following these significant events. In the UK during the first World War, women who took over men's roles in the factories were actively encouraged to play football for exercise - this gave rise to factory teams that played against each other for Cup titles. After the war, the women's teams continued to play, and the games were very popular. Despite this, in 1921 the Football Association (FA) banned women from playing on association grounds. The ban was in place until 1971 and was reflected in many other European countries and countries around the world.
Women across Europe were discouraged (no funding, support, facilities or praise), banned and forbidden from playing in many countries. So, they fought back - they set up their own football associations, played unofficial games and secret 'underground' matches, went to other countries to play, played charity matches, played in amateur tournaments and college competitions, and even went to play in men's teams!
The persistence of female players and the continued popularity of the women's games, alongside the women's liberation movement of the time, saw UEFA in 1971 recommend that national football associations should manage women's football as well as men's. The recommendations helped women's football begin a new era in its journey to success. Bans on the ladies game, in force for up to 50 years, were slowly lifted across the European nations. Many of the first official women's football associations were formed and national leagues established, national teams were created, and some of the first official women's international matches took place.
UEFA's support for women's football has continued over the decades, allowing and encouraging the sport to grow. The first UEFA women's international tournament took place in 1984, with the games reclassified as European Championships in 1990, and in 2000, the Women's Champions League was approved by UEFA. Behind the scenes, UEFA works with national associations to encourage the development and promotion of women's football within each of the European nations, runs a Women's Football Development Programme and a Women in Football Leadership Programme, and pushes forward the female agenda through their Women's Football Committee.
There is still a long way to go in terms of equality against the men's game, but with the direction women's football is heading in Europe, the game is on the right track.
North and Central America, and the Carribean
The Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), founded in 1961, oversees association football of 41 member states in Canada, Mexico, USA, Central American countries and the Caribbean.
In North America women's football has been a slow burner, despite having women's football (soccer) in Canada in the late 19th century and a women's national football team in Mexico in 1963.
In Canada and the USA in the 20th century, soccer was overshadowed by Canadian and American rules football - male-dominated games. Association football slipped into second place, and women's football was, for the time, going nowhere. However, determined to play the game, in the 1970s significant numbers of US college women's teams were formed, and intercollegiate competitions took place. But these were not officially recognised, and nothing changed for women's football until the 1980s. The sport then, perhaps following the implementation of laws against sex discrimination (Title IX), gained considerable support and recognition. In 1983 the United States Women's National Soccer Team was formed. The team had almost immediate successes, winning the 1991 and 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup tournaments - this triggered several attempts to set up professional leagues.
In Mexico, enthusiasm for women's football was prevalent throughout the 20th century, support from the establishment was less forthcoming. FIFA actively discouraged an attempt by the country to stage a 'Women's World Cup' in 1971. The 'unofficial' tournament boasted an attendance of 110,000 people in a single match (this remains a world record attendance at a women's game to date). The matches were not broadcast, and FIFA did not recognise the Mexican women's national team until 1991.
Finally, National Women's Soccer Leagues were set up in the USA in 2012 and Mexico in 2017. The United States women's team has since gone on to win both the 2015 and 2019 FIFA World Cup competitions. Considering their late start, the main CONCACAF nation's teams have caught up very quickly, and their national women's football teams are now considered to be some of the world's best.
In Central American countries, women's football did not get off the ground until the 1990s. In general, the women's game was kept in the shadow of the men's game, and there were limited opportunities for women to play the game due to political and financial reasons. However, Costa Rica and Guatemala have succeeded in forming the most successful national women's teams in Central America - Costa Rica have even made an appearance in the FIFA Women's World Cup (2015).
Many Caribbean Islands have only recently set up national women's teams and been recognised by FIFA. There are probably only 5 or 6 islands that have successful women's teams; these include Haiti, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. Many of the islands do not even enter for the Caribbean or federation competitions. The reasons for this are various. There is no money for women's football, there is nowhere and no opportunities for women to play, and there is no interest in supporting women's teams. Where teams have been successful, there has been some investment. Haiti has invested in U17s and U20s teams. Trinidad and Tobago have proper grounds for the women's team to play on. And, Jamaica's national team, disbanded in 2006, has, since 2014, been reformed - this is primarily due to investment by Cedella Marley (Bob Marley's daughter) – who has seen them become the first Caribbean women's team to qualify for a World Cup tournament.
In South America despite women playing football in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay as far back as the early 1900s, the game was not accepted or recognised, it was, and is still, completely overshadowed by the men's game. Maybe why women's favourite sport in Venezuela is baseball and in Peru, it is netball and surfing!
Women wanting to play football have faced barriers and even hostility across the whole continent. It was not acceptable to governments, sports governing bodies, communities and families. Brazil banned the game from 1941 to 1979 because it was 'bad for female health'. Funding was not provided for support, facilities or even wages. Women have had to play in kits used by men, sleep on buses because there was no money for accommodation, pay for their medical treatment for football injuries, and pay for the privilege of playing. There have also been incidents of corruption where prize monies have not found their way to the players. Funding, where it has been provided, has been tenuous – for instance in a year where the Chilean women's team failed to win, their funding was withdrawn for two years.
However at the turn of this century, perhaps following the success of FIFA Women's World Cup competitions, things began to change. National teams started playing in tournaments worldwide and now come under the umbrella of the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL). Women's football leagues were formed in countries across the continent, player's unions were established, and teams are now supported and sponsored by international companies. Some of the major names in men's football have offered support. Some coaches have volunteered to train women's teams without pay. There are now several U17 and U20 teams. But despite these changes, women footballers still face many challenges to gain respect and equality and to overcome the barriers put in place by national and sports governing bodies...perhaps more so than on any other continent.
Women were playing football in Africa for the last century - beginning in the 1920s in South Africa and in the 1940s in Nigeria (the most successful country playing women's football in Africa). In the 1960's and 1970s women in different African countries tried to set up teams and leagues, but these efforts came to nothing. In 1974 the South African Women's Football Association was established and women's teams slowly formed in Western Africa. Despite several successes by African women's football teams, women's football was still only played in a limited capacity. This was due to a lack of support, funding and sponsorship, teams to play against, apartheid, sexism, abuse and the masculine perception of the game.
Things slowly changed over the years, but, it was not until the 1990s that there was any real growth in the women's game (the Ivory Coast women's team played in China, apartheid ended, and Nigeria played in the first FIFA Women's World Cup). There are now 26 countries with women's football teams playing in the Africa Women Cup of Nations. New initiatives are underway now to support women's football. The Confederation of African Football (CAF), which comprises five federations across six regions, is planning to invest in the game, prioritise women's competitions and support local federations. National teams play in the Confederation tournaments. An African Women's Champions League is planned, and a SheFootball initiative has been launched in Nigeria to encourage young girls into the game.
In Oceania, the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) was only formed in 1966, but by 1975 women’s football teams were competing internationally. Teams from Australia and New Zealand were invited to play in the Asian Cup Tournament. In 1983, women’s teams from the island nations joined Australia and New Zealand in the first Women’s Nations Oceania Cup tournament. There then followed involvement in the 1991 FIFA Women’s World Cup competition. Apart from some early barriers to women playing football, it seems that the women in this federation have been able to develop their sport quite freely over the years. In 2006, Australia withdrew from the OFC and joined the AFC. The confederation was left with just eleven full member nations, probably the smallest confederation by population, meaning the women’s teams have to work hard to make an impression on the international scene.
Football in Asia is managed by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), formed in 1956, it covers an area stretching from the Middle East across the whole continent to China and Japan in the East and to Indonesia, the Philippines and Australia in the South. The AFC incorporates five federations and 47 national football teams that can compete in up to 9 confederation competitions. In nearly all these areas, women have had an uphill struggle to play football.
In the Middle East (12 nations in the West Asian Football Federation (WAFF)) women’s football did not manage to get off the ground until this century. Women across the nations made attempts to set up teams and leagues, but in the main, these failed. Traditional cultural attitudes, religious beliefs, internal disputes, and conflicts have, despite some Royal support and foreign sponsorship, prevented the growth of the sport. Some of the countries are still in this position, however many now support the game at home and even hosting AFC and International women’s competitions.
It is worth noting that Qatar has taken significant steps and has, for the region, a progressive attitude towards the introduction of women’s football into the country. Read our Women’s Football in Qatar article for more information.
There are six nations in the Central Asian Football Association (CAFA). Again women’s football has struggled to become established - this is mainly due to a lack of support and funding. As such, the CAFA nations do not do well in AFC and International women’s football competitions. Perhaps the exception is in Iran where there has been women’s football since the 1970s and a national women’s team since 1976. However, strict social rules have meant that women have had to follow a difficult route to play their game. To do this, they play futsal, an indoor football game, have college teams and are active in promoting their sport.
The South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) has seven member nations where women’s teams have had various difficulties to tackle - lack of support, lack of funding, sexism and internal conflicts. In Pakistan, a FIFA ban led to stagnation in the women’s game. In India despite early successes in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Federation let down women’s football with a lack of support and sponsorship which has left them struggling into this century.
The women of the 12 member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Football Federation (AFF) have nearly all faced challenges in trying to play football. With the exception of Australia, the Philippines and Vietnam, who have had women’s football for some time and have taken part in international and AFC competitions, most other member nations have struggled against religious law, lack of funding, support or sponsorship, and having nowhere and no opportunities to play. However, the AFC and FIFA are now offering funding and support, especially for youth teams, which may well turn the tide for the nations’ women football players.
There are ten member nations in the East Asian Football Federation (EAFF). Across these diverse nations, women’s football has followed a chequered path. Some countries have had women’s involvement as far back as the 1920s; some have only recently taken part. China hosted the first FIFA Women’s World Cup competition, and Japan was ranked 3rd in the World at one point. Across many of the nations, there have been highs and lows; support has waxed and waned for women’s football. The Women’s World Cup had to be relocated from China in 2003 due to SARS. A doping scandal saw North Korea excluded from the 2015 competition. The women’s national team in South Korea was disbanded for 40 years. Support for the game was given following successes and withdrawn following perceived failures. In some countries involvement was kept to amateur status, perception of the game was poor, and opportunities for women were limited.
Women’s Football in the 21st Century
Today, women's football is growing, as is support for the game. Over the past three or four decades, there have been significant events that have given a boost to women fighting to have their sport accepted:
- Unofficial Women's World Cup competitions held in Italy in 1970, Mexico in 1971 and Taipei in 1978 – 1987.
- The first FIFA Women's World Cup competition, held in China in 1991 (now held every four years).
- The first Algarve Cup competition (the 'Mini FIFA Women's World Cup'), played in 1994. Founded by the Portuguese Football Federation, it is an annual invitational tournament for national women's association football teams.
- The addition of women's football to the Olympic programme in 1996 (also held every four years).
- The 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup competition, held in the USA and generally regarded as the event that triggered global interest in women's football.
- The inclusion of women's teams in the Island Games in 2001. An international competition for small (by size or population) non-FIFA nations.
- The establishment of the SheBelieves Cup in 2016. Played every year in the USA, this is an international invitational tournament for national women's association football teams.
- The Copa America Femenina, held in Chile in 2018 - a concerted attempt by South American women football players to revitalise their sport.
- The 2019 Women's World Cup - a huge success for the game having been attended by huge numbers of supporters, watched by millions and broadcast around the world. Its impact on the game has been felt across the globe.
With each of these events, women's football has moved forwards gaining support, sponsorship and funding, becoming a source of national pride and prestige, and encouraging greater participation. The 21st century has seen the best of times for women's football. There are now top class women players in teams around the world, providing excellent role models for young women everywhere. FIFA, Nations and the world's six football federations are now incorporating and supporting women's football. Globally there are the FIFA World Cup and Olympic events along with the associated qualifiers, trophies and medals. Confederations and Nations have set up women's football associations and leagues, and they hold their own tournaments.
Typically women footballers in all federations can now be involved in:
- Olympic qualifiers and Olympic Games;
- FIFA World Cup qualifiers and FIFA Women's World Cup tournaments;
- Women's Federation Cup competitions;
- Federation Women's Club Championship competitions.
And, most importantly, the following are also available and supported:
- The FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup;
- The FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup;
- Federation Women's Under-20 Championship;
- Federation Women's Under-17 Championship;
- Federation Girl's U-15 Championship;
- Federation Youth Games for Women.
Experience around the world has shown that the involvement of young women and girls in the competitions listed above is critical to the future of the women's game to keep new talent coming through and to replace key players. Federations and associations are now attracting young players through schools, clubs and Under-20s/17s/15s competitions to keep new blood coming into the game.
Despite the progress (and although women's football is the same as men's football and played to the same rules), there is still a long way to go. Wages and conditions are still not on par with men's football. Right up until today, women football players, in general, receive only a fraction of the pay given to male players. However, in the USA, Australia, Nigeria, New Zealand, Norway and Holland wages are now either on par or negotiations are underway. In many countries, women football players only have amateur status; this means that they are exempt from social benefits such as healthcare and pensions.
The lack of funding, a significant contribution to the slow development of women's football, is finally being addressed too. FIFA, federations and governments are promising to allocate monies to improve facilities and to promote the early involvement of young women (UEFA is the largest investor in women's football). Time will tell if the promises do materialise. More sponsors are now coming forward, but still not as many support the men's game (the AFC is the biggest recipient of sponsorship). Women's football is now being broadcast, but mainly just for international matches.
There are still some nations that show no interest in women's football. There are still cultural and religious barriers in some countries with women forbidden to play by their country's leaders, their religious leaders and even their families. There are still places where women players receive verbal abuse and threats. And, there are still kit problems, for instance, the inclusion of the hijab; fortunately, a lightweight kit that incorporates the hijab has now been designed for those who require modesty.
Hopefully, these issues will decrease as more countries around the world become involved and recognise the advantages of releasing the untapped potential of women's football.
Bids are now in for countries to host the 2023 Women's World Cup. Australia and New Zealand, Brazil, Colombia and Japan are all vying for this prize. Whoever wins the draw will be responsible for carrying on the fight to bring women's football in line with the men's game, improving on the development and popularity of the sport, and ensuring that there is a bright future for the women's game.
This article has only looked at women’s football in nations and countries affiliated to FIFA. There are other organisations such as the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA) - the international governing body for association football teams that are not affiliated with FIFA - who support and encourage the involvement of women football players.
Find out who are the current most successful women players in international football, read our The World’s Top Female Football Players article.
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