On Sunday, tens of thousands will head into the home of English football for the Women’s FA Cup final between Arsenal and Chelsea in what could be the best attended domestic match for 101 years, when 53,000 packed into Goodison Park.
This weekend, however, will also offer a reminder of a darker era for women’s football in England. It is a century since the Football Association (FA) barred women’s teams from playing on their pitches, effectively enforcing a ban.
Before the decision was made – and partly affected by men’s football being suspended in 1915 due to World War 1, women’s football saw near-capacity crowds backing the players who in turn were playing for their factory, for charity or local causes.
Women’s football wasn’t women’s football back then, it was simply football. A game many enjoyed, no matter who was playing.
The ban is a stain on the history of the FA, which apologised in 2008, but in 2021 women’s football, especially in England, is in a solid place. And in the coming years it could flourish into a dominant commercial asset.
“It’s on the crest of a wave,” said Charlotte Thomson, head of women’s football at Copa90. “It’s not there yet. I think it’s up to us to make sure that that momentum doesn’t crash and go flat like it did after the World Cup.
“I think a big thing is how people write and talk about women’s football. A lot of that reflects back into how you talk about men’s football.”
England is seen as a beacon of women’s football – its new broadcast deal for the Women’s Super League has been hailed as a watershed moment – but they’re not the only country pushing into the market.
The Italian Serie A is due to professionalise from next year, a new Saudi Arabian league has crowned its first women’s champions and Brazil has announced its intention to equalise payments to men and women’s internationals.
The sport is turning towards a goldmine of commercial opportunities and brands are recognising the open door women’s football provides – including Vitality, which sponsors the Women’s FA Cup.
“There’s an opportunity there not necessarily for the women’s sports fan but the female fan,” said Lee Gibbons, managing director of Sport Unlimited.
“Our research suggests that 46 per cent of women in the UK are interested in sport, that’s through different levels such as knowing about sport and fandom.
“But of that 46 per cent, 66 per cent don’t currently follow a women’s team, league or tournament. That’s where the opportunity lies.”
For all the commercial opportunities, history of women’s football in this country and its potential, at the middle of it all is a love for the game which surpasses the politics watching on – and having that broadcast to an audience is crucial.
“The relationship that you have with your club is very different to the relationship you have with your country,” added Thomson. “It’s a lot more personal, even in the England team you’ll have an affiliation with the players who play for your club.
“By having these broadcast deals, all of a sudden you’re starting to get into that narrative and you’re starting to follow a story.
“Then when those players go to the Euros [next year], fans will be interested in the Holland game, the Denmark games, the German and French teams because they have players from their clubs who play there and they have a vested interest.”
This weekend’s FA Cup final may very well break the attendance record set in 1920. Equally, it may not. But in the place women’s football finds itself – especially in England but globally too – the sport has a chance to propel itself into a position of social sporting normality fans were so used to post-WW1.