SPORTS

Once banned in England, women's soccer thriving at London Olympics

08/01/2012 11:46 EDT | Updated 10/01/2012 05:12 EDT
MANCHESTER, England - In 1921, England's Football Association banned women from playing on Football League grounds because the game was deemed "quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged."

The ban stood in place for 50 years. It was lifted the same year of the first women's FA Cup final, when Southampton beat Stewarton and Thistle 4-1 in 1971.

But that was four decades ago, right? Surely the nation that prides itself as the inventor of the sport would surely have embraced the women's game by now. After all, a brand new Women's Super League debuted last year. The eight teams drew an average of, well, 550 fans per game.

And, yet, that meagre number represented a 604 per cent increase for the teams that migrated from England's previous top league.

Now there's the London Olympics, and the English — along with the Scottish and Welsh — are getting a full-fledged, in-your-face dose of the women's game, and the matches are drawing unprecedented crowds. The same historic venues that kept women off the pitch are seeing support ranging from decent to robust, topped by the 70,584 who watched Kelly Smith and Britain beat Brazil 1-0 at Wembley Stadium on Tuesday night, a record British crowd and the third-largest to watch a women's game anywhere in the world.

"I think we're breaking boundaries," Britain forward Eniola Aluko said. "And the people who are in control of the game can recognize now that women's football is essentially a sport. So get more people out to see us like this and it will grow."

And they're not just turning out to see the home team. Close to 30,000 watched the United States play North Korea on Tuesday in the first international women's game — and the first women's game of any kind in 23 years — to be hosted at Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United.

The 18 women's games played so far have averaged 22,242 spectators, although officials at the games in Scotland said tens of thousands of tickets were given away because the women's game is such a poor draw in that area.

Still, the sight of 14,753 watching a women's game between Canada and South Africa in Coventry, England, is definitely not the norm. Might the London Games finally get the women's game firmly on the sporting radar in Britain, much the same way that the Atlanta Olympics put U.S. women's football on the map in 1996?

"I think that Team GB, Great Britain — whatever you want to call them — I think they are putting themselves in a position to grow the game, and I'm proud to be here to be a part of it, to witness it," U.S. forward Abby Wambach said. "Kelly Smith has done wonders for her team. It's kind of like (Homare) Sawa, how Sawa and the Japanese team kind of went unnoticed in their country for so long, and now those Japanese players are superstars because they won the World Cup. Hopefully GB can keep going in the tournament and keep the excitement for their country."

Yet the Americans who are rooting for British growth can pass along some cautionary tales. The 1996 Olympics and the 1999 World Cup made the U.S. players enormously popular, yet two attempts at forming a top-tier American league — the WUSA and WPS — have floundered.

The English FA has taken note. The Super League's goals are modest, built on a semiprofessional structure in which only four players per team can make a salary of more than 20,000 pounds (C$31,200). Select players in the England national team poll get an extra 16,000 pounds (C$25,000) per year.

Officials say they've largely overcome the old prejudices about women and the game. FA spokesman Johann Alexander said women's soccer is now the third largest participation sport in England, behind men's soccer and men's cricket and surpassing men's rugby.

"I think the perceptions have changed a lot," Alexander said. "We've worked as an organization very hard to change that perception. In the last 20 years, the investment in the game, the quality of the games, the skill, stamina and fitness have improved. There's not too many people that watch a women's game or view it on the TV that won't come back with a different perception."

And, naturally, the Olympics are giving the women's game some priceless exposure.

"We gave girls a talent pathway," Alexander said. "Watching games like last night (at Wembley), you can see the pathway, and that's important to encourage young girls to play. They say, 'I want to be like Kelly Smith.'"

With prospects for a revival of a U.S. league uncertain, American players are considering playing overseas once the Olympics are done. The obvious choices are the more developed leagues in Sweden, Germany, Japan or France, but goalkeeper Hope Solo said she might opt for England.

"It's not necessarily about the play, it's about bringing the game to a whole different level globally, the women's game," Solo said. "So I would think about staying right here in England and helping build the sport here, the beautiful game where the game has such a rich history, yet the women's game is lacking."

That would be quite a coup. The outspoken, charismatic Solo would doubtless be a big hit with the British media.

The matter of publicity is the sticking point for Britain forward Aluko, who said there's been more interest in the women's games at the Olympics because they've been marketed so well. She'd like to see that kind of commitment year-round.

"Women's football is no longer a sport that is in the dark," Aluko said. "People need to be allowed to see it and get the information like you would in the men's game. We get fed up with seeing information about the men's game. We think it should be the same with the women's game and you would see crowds like that more often."

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AP Sports Writer Paul Logothetis contributed to this story from Wembley, England.

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