England’s Lionesses are a game changer for domestic football

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WHEN CAROL THOMAS she started playing the game, at the age of 11, she didn’t know the Football Association (fa) did not allow women on his fields. A ban imposed in 1921 because football was considered “grossly unsuitable for women” remained in place until 1970. Ms Thomas went on to become England captain , but she had to pay for her own travel, including internationally. Her team expected, and did not receive, media coverage. Gillian Coultard, a former teammate who played in the 1995 World Cup, has referred to the female footballers of the 1980s and 1990s as the “silent generation”.

This neglect of talent is now evident. In 2021, one hundred years after its ban, the FA we launched the #LetGirlsPlay campaign for equal access to football in communities and schools by 2024. If this comes close to being achieved, much credit will go to the current national team . In 2022 the Lionesses beat Germany 2-1 in extra time in the Euro final. In the ongoing World Cup, they will face the hosts, Australia, in the semi-final on 16 August. Win or lose, the Lionnesses are national heroes.

Their success has had two important consequences. Enthusiasm for the game continues to grow, with a huge increase in viewing figures for England Women’s Super League shows (see chart). That brings more investment. Just as importantly, the Lionesses have encouraged more girls to play.

This is evident in the playground. A survey of primary school teachers has found that the number who see girls playing at recess each day rose from 22% in July last year to 32% in July this year. The number of primary schools with girls’ or mixed teams rose from 61% to 71%. Outside the school, clubs have multiplied. When Maeve Fitzgerald, a 12-year-old midfielder in south London who bears a local resemblance to Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne, wanted to join a club five years ago, her parents had a problem to find Now she is a member of two and plays twice a week.

More women are becoming coaches too. Ella Cahoon, 30, who has played since she was eight, volunteered for a south-east London club after the Lionesses won the Euros. She believes that the biggest challenge, apart from ensuring that girls have the opportunity to join teams at all levels, is encouraging them to stick with it beyond youth. The fa says that 72% of girls in primary school play as much football as boys but that drops to 44% in secondary school. The government has introduced a kitemark-like scheme for schools to provide equal access to sports for boys and girls.

Although boys from households of all incomes play football, among girls it seems to be more for middle-class families. That may reflect, to some extent, the cost and time required to bring girls to practices and games that are more spread out and therefore involve more travel than boys. Bernie Butler, whose 12-year-old daughter Charlotte plays for a south London club, says almost all of her daughter’s teams are white and most part of the middle class.

Another old barrier may be falling away, anyway. Ms Cahoon, the coach, remembers boys in the East Midlands scoffing at girls’ requests to use the school’s goal posts. Ms Butler has had a different experience. As a child she happily played with boys in the playground. Now, boys from her club often show up to support girls’ games. She does the same for them.

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