Mark Sampson's firing reveals the tenuous toehold of women's soccer in England
This past spring, on a Saturday afternoon in Manchester, the crowd at the UEFA Women's Champions League semifinal represented proof that women's soccer had gained, if not yet equal footing, at least a toehold in England.
At the match between Manchester City and Lyon, the atmosphere mirrored the occasion. What the audience lacked in size, it made up for in flags, drums and songs. They had bought tickets and jerseys, and sought out clips on YouTube. They didn't just watch, they cared. It was an audience of soccer fans, in other words. And all of it was new. Manchester City was investing in the women's game at a time when the national team's success was imprinted in the national consciousness.
Yet only days earlier, Notts County, one of the clubs in the top division of women's professional soccer in England, folded on the eve of the spring season. Its players were cut adrift, left without a place to play, or even a place to sleep in some cases. The contrast between the two scenes -- that in Manchester and that in Nottingham -- indicated the tenuous grasp women's soccer has in the U.K.
What would be familiar to American fans, though, is that the national team was the bulwark for women's soccer in England -- the castle in a county full of them.
Today, however, it resembles something more like a house of cards.
On Wednesday Mark Sampson was dismissed as manager of the England women's national team. While he had been the subject of allegations of racism, harassment and bullying, the Football Association, England's governing body, cited a full report of an investigation into an incident at Bristol Academy, where Sampson managed prior to his move to the national team in December 2013, as reason for his firing. A 2015 investigation cleared Sampson to continue coaching, but FA chief executive Martin Glenn said this week that his first full reading of the two-year-old report suggested Sampson had "overstepped the professional boundaries between player and coach."
Sampson has also faced continued controversy over allegations of racism and bullying made by England national team player Eni Aluko in 2016, although the coach was officially cleared by both an internal review by the FA and an independent investigation.
Glenn also told the BBC that his organization had investigated the racism, harassment and bullying allegations, and cleared Sampson of all wrongdoing, allowing him to continue coaching in 2015.
Against that backdrop, the reemergence of the Bristol Academy storyline was the last straw despite continued success on the field. The women's national team began World Cup qualifying with a 6-0 win against Russia, beat the United States in Harrison, New Jersey, in March -- a historic result on American soil -- and made a run in the 2015 World Cup that culminated in semifinal heartbreak and eventual third-place redemption.
Games and goals can't offer redemption now. Not from this mess. Not when the next World Cup is just a year and a half away. Until then, this is what many will know of the national team.
Somewhere in the eye of this storm are stories still to be told and truths still to be learned. Truth about Sampson and about those he allegedly failed to "safeguard," in the language of the report. About Aluko, the former (and perhaps future) England player and lawyer whose allegation of discrimination is separate from the latest allegations, but no less consequential. About Aluko's former teammates, who pointedly engulfed Sampson en masse to celebrate the first goal in Tuesday's win against Russia.
But removed by an ocean's distance, what stands out at the moment is the harsh light all of this casts on the state of the women's game in England and how much damage has been done to the strongest link in the chain of progress. It won't matter which side a person takes; it matters only that there are sides to what was until recently a unifying presence.
In America, a goalkeeper's intemperate words roiled the U.S. women's national team in 2007 and again in 2016. Imagine that angst multiplied by the layers and alleged systemic failures at play in England right now.
It's as if a thin veneer of progress was stripped away to reveal the less pleasant reality beneath, one in which the FA still can't wrap its head around women's soccer as a serious entity, one in which the landscape beyond the national team is a morass of financial inequity and limited opportunity.
This isn't a matter of the imminent demise of women's soccer in England. The national team should still reach the 2019 World Cup in France with ease, ranked third in the world after an impressive, if podium-less, display in the European Championship and blessed with perhaps the easiest group in European qualifying. That isn't to say the next coach will lack for challenges if players from either side of the Sampson fault line are put in close proximity, or that anyone has faith in the FA to make the hiring decision. But the means are present to avert catastrophe.
Nor is the pipeline likely to dry up entirely, with participation rates for girls rising. England isn't about to revert to the country that provided current U.S. national team coach Jill Ellis, and women in her generation, few if any opportunities for organized competition.
But it's a country in which a lot of apparent progress could easily stagnate.
The women's team at Notts County folded in the spring. Just last week came the revelation that Sunderland Ladies, a team with ample history in the women's game, would no longer be able to use the same training facilities utilized by the Sunderland men. In place of the summer-based schedule previously played, the FA Women's Super League shifted to a fall-to-spring schedule this year to fall in line with France, Germany and European orthodoxy. That put the Sunderland women's senior team in competition with the men's academy youth teams for training time. Not surprisingly, at a club that returned the women to semi-pro status last year, the women lost.
Only a handful of women's teams in the top division, backed by some of the wealthiest Premier League organizations and able to attract the likes of American stars Crystal Dunn, Carli Lloyd and Heather O'Reilly in recent months, are fully professional. Most teams play at secondary venues, at times removed from the natural geography of their potential fan bases or convenient mass transit.
It is a land of plenty for a few, still a hardscrabble existence for most.
An ascendant national team represented what the women's game could be in England, its players fully professional and its support mainstream if not quite universal.
At least for now, that same program looks a lot more like what the sport is in the country: frayed, factious, fallible.