Women are the new Wembley heroes

The Olympic Games have turned the spotlight on the resurgence in women's football.

    Women are the new Wembley heroes
    The United States women's football team beat Japan by 2-1 to win Olympic gold at Wembley Stadium [GALLO/GETTY]

    America is again on top of the world in women's football.

    The United States won its third consecutive Olympic Gold medal before a huge crowd of 80,203 soccer fans at Wembley, scoring a 2-1 victory over Japan. It is the biggest crowd ever to watch women play football at the Olympics.

    The fans were treated to an enthralling match. Japan were forced to chase the game after losing an early goal and their brand of quick, passing football was a joy to watch. 

    They were denied, however, by a match-winning performance from US goalkeeper Hope Solo, who made a string of brilliant saves.

    After the game, she described the Japanese players as "heroes" and tweeted a picture of herself with three of her opponents on the famous Wembley turf. It is difficult to imagine such a positive show of togetherness from men.

    FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who once caused uproar by suggesting that women should play "in tighter shorts", was greeted with a thunderous chorus of boos when he was introduced ahead of the medal ceremony. 

    The way in which women's football has captured the public imagination is one of the great stories of the London Olympics

    Kelly Simmons, the Football Association's Head of National Game and a member of FIFA's Women's Committee, told Al Jazeera:

    "The Olympics have been a tremendous platform in which to showcase the very best of women's football from across the world. We are delighted with the unprecedented coverage and support Team GB women and the other teams have received."

    In the US, people reportedly skipped work to watch the match, while sports bars in the Japanese capital, Toyko, opened at 4.30am for supporters to cheer on their team.

    Many British men haven't really got used to the idea of women in football, whether playing the game in schools and clubs across the country or as supporters or officials.

    Last year, former Scotland international Andy Gray's sexist diatribe against a female assistant referee notoriously cost him his job as a presenter with Sky Sports. "What do women know about the offside rule?" he had fumed.

    Contrary to what most people think, women's football is not a new thing - and neither is sexism amongst male journalists and sports officials.

    US goalkeeper Hope Solo made a string of
    saves in the final match at Wembley [GALLO/GETTY]

    Middle class enthusiasts founded the English Ladies Football Club in London in 1895.

    An unimpressed correspondent from the Manchester Guardian reported that, once the novelty had worn off, women's football would fail to attract large crowds. Within a few years, his misguided prediction had turned out to be a journalistic howler of epic proportions.

    By the end of World War I, there were more than 150 women's teams across the UK, playing before large crowds at major stadiums. In 1918, Glasgow's famed Celtic Park hosted the first international between Scotland and England.

    Working class women had taken the places of their husbands and fathers in agriculture, industry - and then on the football pitch.

    The most famous and successful women's football team in England was Dick, Kerr Ladies, formed by workers of the Dick, Kerr & Co munitions factory in Preston. Women who were employed making shells played impromptu games of football during breaks, and one of the factory managers began to organise matches for charity.

    The team's biggest gate was on December 23, 1920, when they played St Helen's Ladies at Goodison Park, Everton's ground, watched by a crowd of 53,000.

    Yet the next chapter in the history of women's football remains shocking.

    In 1921, the Football Associations in both Scotland and England banned the women's game - maintaining that football was unsuitable for the female body. More likely, perhaps, is that women's soccer was just too popular and posed a threat to the men's game.

    Clubs were banned from allowing their grounds to be used for women’s matches.

    That was it, really, for the next 50 years. Many women's teams folded. But the Dick, Kerr Ladies fought on. Speaking at a special exhibition honouring the team at the National Football Museum in Preston, their goalkeeper, June Gregson, described how they would stop off at the pub after a game and have a drink and a sing-song.

    Denied access to top grounds at home, they organised a US tour - beating men's teams in the process - and continued to play on any pitches available, until 1965. If they had held out just a few years longer they would have seen the start of the revival.

    The first organised league for women's football in Scotland was established in 1968, and England followed a year later. The men who ran the Scottish Football Association finally recognised the women's game in 1974.

    Kelly Simmons said the Olympics has shown that there has been, over the years, a huge shift in people's perceptions of the female game.

    "Our challenge is to covert this increased awareness and interest for fans who follow England and the FA WSL, our semi professional elite women's league in England, into more players, coaches and referees," she said.

    Today, more than 150,000 women play football each week in England alone - and it is the most popular female team sport in the country, according to the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation.

    Around the world, FIFA say there are 29 million women playing football regularly. Young girls, just like boys, can dream of scoring the winning goal for their country in an Olympic or World Cup Final. 

    Now would be a good time to pay homage to the early heroines of Dick, Kerr Ladies.

    Follow Andrew McFadyen on Twitter: @apmcfadyen

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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