When Panini stickers issued its first edition for the Women’s World Cup in 2011 in Germany, it was hailed by many as progress and an important innovation. Like Hope Solo appearing on Dancing with the Stars, the Panini range was considered an encouraging sign that women stars were moving beyond sport into the cultural industries. But are what appear to be ‘firsts’ really markers of progress? Should we consider how continuity can be as important as change? How does change differ from progress? And what vital role does history play in public perceptions of female sport?
The simple thesis for my blog post is that recovering the history is so crucial because, without this evidence we accept the chronology constructed by governing bodies who, for a long time, have considered women’s sporting interests beneath their contempt. The historiography of football has tended to neglect women’s contribution to the sport based on the gendered labour markets developed by the FA (Football Association) in 1863 and the professional game since the mid 1880s. The world governing body FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) formed in 1904 but oversaw women’s football only since 1969.
However, the increasing academic study of football as part of the wider cultural and entertainment industries, is now beginning to nuance this picture. In the August 1869 edition of Harper’s Bazaar, a group of fashionably dressed young women were shown kicking a football about with great verve, and holding off their opponents in pursuit of the ball. Subtitled, ‘The Girls of the Period-Playing Ball’ this illustration suggests that ‘kick-abouts’ or ‘pick-up’ games could involve girls and women as well as men and boys at this time.
Few popular or academic historians now write about the history of World War One without acknowledging that football was a big part of the story of sport maintaining morale on the Home Front. The Arts and Humanities Research Council, the BBC and Imperial War Museums ran a project World War One At Home which highlighted women’s changing lives. Increasingly, the effect of the conflict and ensuing peace on European women’s sport and leisure are receiving the attention that they deserve.
The FA changed the culture of world football in 1921 when it issued a ban on women’s football. This redefined men’s football as much as the game for women. The ban was in response to large paying crowds of up to 55,000, mainly comprised of working men, who routinely supported women playing football and paid to do so. This speaks to the myth that women’s sport is not, in itself, as lucrative as a sporting spectacle as men’s sport. Rather it was the threat of the popularity of women’s football that resulted in the ban. The ban was not supported by all national football associations, but the idea was influential for the next fifty years.
When FIFA, very grudgingly, took control of the women’s game in 1969, it then delayed a women’s world championship tournament until 1991. The first FIFA Women’s World Championship was held in PR China in 1991 with twelve national teams. Perhaps surprisingly, FIFA insisted that the hosting country should make no money from the occasion, but guaranteed that the national football association would not suffer a financial loss either.
This effectively defined women’s football as an amateur spectacle rather than a professional mega event. There were 26 matches in total, with 5 double-headers so 21 matches were hosted in stadia at Tianhe (4 matches, with a capacity of 30,000 spectators per match); Provincial (4 matches, capacity 15,000 per match); Panyu (4 matches, capacity 10,000 per match); Jiangmen (3 matches, capacity 10,000 per match), Nanhai (3 matches, capacity 10,000 per match) and Zhongshan (3 matches, capacity 10,000 per match).
FIFA used the symbolic phoenix, indicating beauty in Chinese culture, as the key theme for the opening ceremony and the trophy. However, officials were not convinced of the public appetite for the competition, as 124,000 of the total 310,000 tickets, priced at just one US dollar, were given away gratis. The confectionary company Mars, which was keen to enter the Chinese market at the time, sponsored the tournament with its M&Ms brand.
As part of a continuing campaign to integrate PR China into world football, the country also hosted the 2007 Women's World Cup. The United States has held two Women’s World Cup competitions in 1999 and 2003. Sweden hosted the Women’s World Cup in 1995 and an Olympic Games tournament first showcased women’s football at Atlanta in 1996. Thereafter, Sydney; Athens, Beijing and London became important milestones in the cross-cultural transfer of Olympic women’s football. Women’s World Cup, hosted by Germany in 2011 was intended as a record-breaking all-female sports tournament in Europe.
Women constitute less then ten per cent of football players today, with some countries still not perceiving the sport as ‘suitable’ for female spectators and players. Female administrators, owners, medical experts, lawyers, player agents, media specialists are all marginalized by the formal and informal processes of world football. So, is it the global game? The symbolic gesture of playing Women’s World Cup Football on artificial turf suggests not.
Just as the 2015 Panini stickers are part of a much longer history of cultural representation of women’s football, I also hope we can see that the media scape in which Canada 2015 takes place is as important to our understanding as sport. As US player Meg Rapinoe has indicated in her blog, FIFA made a $338 million profit on the 2014 Men’s World Cup in Brazil, to say that it is not logistically possible to install real grass in all of the stadiums for the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada, is clearly not accurate.
So what symbolic gender differences are being expressed, if money is no object? Women’s football remains second-rate, ‘other’ to malestream soccer and is still being undermined by the governing bodies who claim to be promoting it. It’s no accident that some of the strongest nations for women’s football (the US, China, Norway, more recently Japan and South Korea) are countries without traditionally strong male football cultures. It’s also likely that England will never host a future men’s or women’s world cup, given the FA’s continuing snobbery about its centrality to the world game. The FA seems to have forgotten that the rest of the world has moved on.
I await the first female President of FIFA with some anticipation. I hope that she will be an admirable woman who will appoint her colleagues on the basis of competence rather than gender and will replace the 'little men in grey suits' who currently run the world game. Even more, I look forward to a time when gender is one of many differences celebrated in and through the world game, that better reflects global diversity.
Jean Williams @jeanmwilliams
 The Greater Game’ National Football Museum http://www.nationalfootballmuseum.com/whats-on/event/2014/the-greater-game-football-and-the-first-world-war/19-12-14/ launched 19 December 2014.
 http://www.theplayerstribune.com/womens-world-cup-megan-rapinoe/ accessed 14 May 2015.