From prohibition to fame: history of women’s football
Today, names like Jennifer Hermoso, Marta Torrejón or Alex Morgan are familiar to us, but women have not had it easy to achieve recognition in the world of football. We invite you to take a journey through history where we will see how women have fought for a place in this popular sport.
First participation of women in football
In the 3rd century B.C., in the city of Lin Zi, China, an episode took place that would change the history of football. The creation of a game, known as Cuju or Tsu Chu (we talked about it in our article about football precursors), which consisted of kicking a ball and directing it into a net and trying to score a goal in any way, but without using the hands.
It was very popular in society but especially among women, who even played it more than men. Without fear of being mistaken, we can cite this activity as the first approximation to what we know as women’s football.
During the Middle Ages, women’s football was banned in Great Britain because of its violent nature. In 1863, the Football Association (FA) was founded with the aim of standardizing the rules of the game, adjusting rules to avoid violence in the game to make it socially acceptable for women.
In 1894 the first women’s club was founded, named the British Ladies Football Club (BLFC). The founder of the club was Netty Honeyball who, through newspaper advertisements, recruited players, many of whom were young women from the middle and upper classes. After several weeks of training, the first match was played on March 23, 1895 in London’s Crouch End. But in the absence of other women’s clubs, BLFC was divided into two teams generically called «North» and «South».
The golden age of women's football
The advent of the First World War was key for women’s football in the United Kingdom, as many men were conscripted and sent to the front line during the war. In the factories, women workers had begun to occupy their free time by playing improvised football matches, becoming a popular pastime. Due to this popular activity, many factories created their own soccer teams, which until then had been the privilege of men. One of the most successful teams of the time was Dick, Kerr’s Ladies of Preston (England).
For the first time, newspapers stopped worrying about the players’ outfits and instead focused their articles on the match itself. The enormous amount of money, public and media attention generated by women’s football began to worry the Football Association (FA) leadership. The response was relentless and had long-lasting consequences. On December 5, 1921, the FA unanimously adopted a resolution stating that football was an unsuitable sport for women.
The great reception by the American press and public failed to change the situation. The FA ban (which remained in place until the 1970s) prevented women’s football from reinventing itself. The golden age that had begun during the war was over by the mid-1920s. Many women continued to play football, but, as at the beginning of the century, they did so in an almost private way and without a solid organization or relevant competitions. Ultimately, the FA ban forced women’s football to begin a long struggle to play this sport and be recognized that lasted more than 50 years.
The US paradigm
After the 1966 World Cup, the interest of women fans grew to such an extent that the FA decided to incorporate them in 1969 after the creation of the FA’s women’s branch. From the 1970s to the 1990s, women’s football experienced a global boom, expanding to continents such as Asia, Europe and North America.
The case of the USA is the most interesting, in that the absence of a football culture comparable to that of other countries allowed ‘soccer’ to be associated with the female rather than the male world. By the year 2000, there were around seven million female players in the USA and women’s ‘soccer’ was beginning to attract some media attention after the victory of the local team in the 1999 World Cup. Despite this, the enormous difficulties in creating a regular league in the U.S. point to one of the main challenges facing women’s football in recent decades: professionalism.
Evolution of women's football in Spain
The pioneers of football in Spain were the ‘Spanish Girls Club’, who entered in the history of the Spanish sport on June 9, 1914 after playing the first women’s football match in Spain. Paco Bru, a former FC Barcelona player, was the founder of the team and divided the girls of the same team into two: Monserrat and Giralda. Thus, the first unofficial match of Spanish women’s football was played on the field of RCD Espanyol.
Another figure of our football was Irene González, a goalkeeper who played several exhibition matches with a team of veterans from A Coruña in 1920. Women’s football began to make its way during the Second Republic, but soon fell into oblivion due to the outbreak of the Civil War.
From the seventies onwards, women’s football began to gain importance, although it was a long process. In 1971 Spanish Women’s National Team played its first unofficial match against Portugal. Twelve years later, in 1983, they faced each other again, but this time it was the first match played by our national team.
In 1988 ‘La Liga Nacional Femenina’ was created, which was formed by a single group in which nine clubs took part. Later, in 1996, it was renamed as ‘División de Honor Femenina’, in which the 42 participants were divided into four groups according to geographical proximity. In 2001 it was changed to ‘Superliga Femenina’, again formed by a single group of 14 teams. In 2008 it was expanded from 14 to 16 and in 2010 from 16 to 42, again creating several groups. Finally, in 2011, ‘Primera División Femenina’ was created, with 16 teams and a single block.
The last step: professionalism
Future looks inspiring for Spanish women’s football. On June 15, 2021, the professionalisation of the women’s football league was approved, the first competition played by women which reaches this honour in the country. The creation of the ‘Liga Ellas’ supposes for the government to settle “an historic debt (…) with the whole collective of sportswomen historically discriminated just because of their gender”.
Although there are some procedures needed to put into practice the aforementioned decision, the professionalisation of women’s football allows that it can be comparable to its male counterpart in organizational aspects or in the sale of audiovisual rights. It must be noticed that, until know, there were only three professional competitions in Spain, all played by men: ‘Primera División’ and ‘Segunda División’ in football and ‘ACB’ in basketball.
We have seen that despite the difficulties and prohibitions that women have suffered throughout the history of football, they have ended up receiving the recognition they deserve. Even so, there are still certain differences, so there is still a long way to go, but in the meantime we will continue to enjoy both men’s and women’s professional football.