Women's soccer in England has entered a new age. The much-anticipated FA Women's Super League (FA WSL) kicked off in mid-April. And with the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup starting June 26 in Germany, soccer enthusiasts from all over the world will be following the women's game this summer.
In England, the women's side of the sport has had a patchy history, despite the country's rich soccer tradition. In 1921 the English Football Association banned women from playing on pitches designated for men's teams. The move was partly motivated by the resounding popularity of women's clubs at the time: the Dick, Kerr Ladies drew as many as 53,000 spectators to matches. After World War I, the FA became concerned that women's teams would outdraw men's teams. The ban remained in effect for 50 years before it was overturned in 1971.
It took another 21 years before the FA Women's Premier League was formed. The 12-team amateur division featured England's top talent from 1992 to 2010. The league struggled to compete against the commercial and global profile of the Barclay's Premier League. Teams came and went, and matches attracted meager crowds.
Plans for a re-launched league first surfaced in 2009, but the economic downturn postponed the new league's arrival until 2011. The delay pushed some of England's top players, such as Kelly Smith and Alex Scott, to play in the United States' Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) league instead. But the FA stayed true to its promise and pledged nearly $5 million to assist with the league's start-up costs.
The FA WSL has fundamental differences from its Women's Premier League predecessor. It's more condensed, with just eight teams. Fierce competition for roster slots should spur player development.
"One of the great things about going from 12 teams to eight is [that] you're really honing that quality to the very top players," Kelly Simmons, FA's Head of the Game, told The Independent. Simmons is tasked with promoting women's soccer at the grassroots level.
The league's summer calendar was scheduled specifically to be more spectator-friendly.
"For girls [who] play the game themselves, it will be in their offseason and so they will be able to watch their local teams," Faye White, England's captain and Arsenal Ladies mainstay, told The Daily Mail.
Unlike the WPS, the FA WSL is taking a more conservative fiscal route, as teams are semi-professional. Clubs are expected to run on budgets around $330,000-$430,000, compared with the multimillion dollar outlays of their American counterparts. Within each club, only four players can earn in excess of £20,000 ($36,000) per season, and most squad members are expected to work second jobs.
The inaugural season features a mix of established powerhouses and new teams. Arsenal Ladies is the preeminent force in the country. The team has won the past nine domestic titles, and boasts a handful of Great Britain's premier players, including Rachel Yankey, Julie Fleeting and Kim Little. Arsenal's pedigree and depth of quality should ensure another title challenge.
Chelsea and Everton are also names that are instantly familiar to fans of the men's game. Both have finished near the top in the Women's Premier League in past seasons. Everton's crosstown rival, Liverpool, is relatively unknown in the women's game, having come to the FA WSL from the second division.
Several teams are independent clubs with no affiliation to a men's counterpart. Lincoln Ladies is the other team from the second division. Bristol Academy Women FC is another stand-alone team, and has angled for a berth in the FA WSL for years. Doncaster Rovers Belles has a storied history that includes the FA Women's Premier League title in 1992 and 1994. Birmingham City is the surprise of this season. Led by explosive English attacker Karen Carney, it sits atop the standings with a perfect record after five matches.
The landmark league stopped play on May 12, five weeks out from the kickoff of the World Cup. Action will resume in July, concluding in late September.
England's women's national team is favored to advance out of group play in the World Cup, especially after the team's historic victory over the U.S. on April 2 in an international friendly match. For many of England's players, there's a stable league to come home to, no matter how the team fares in international action.