The Women's World Cup has come to an end, and the Lionesses are returning to England having beaten Germany in the third place match with a penalty: a tale that would undoubtedly be eternalised in national folklore had it involved male players. The squad's third place result at the tournament makes them the second-most successful England team in history.
Despite generating more enthusiasm and interest around the women's squad than ever before, the Lionesses are coming home to a nation that overwhelmingly regards women's football with a mixture of apathy and ridicule. There are a lot of thankless tasks performed by women who receive no recognition for their efforts, but winning bronze at the Women's World Cup and returning home to this denigrating display of dumb-fuckery from the official England Twitter account must sting worse than chronic cystitis:
The tweet was hastily deleted, but much like that girl from your hometown who shares Timehop photos of a Nando's she ate three years ago, the Internet never forgets. Patriarchal PR-blunders aside, the question remains of what the future will hold for English women's football. It's dismally easy to condemn FIFA for their persistent failure to develop the sport. Like a shitty dad at parents' evening, Sepp Blatter didn't even plan on showing up to the Women's World Cup final, and whilst his absence may be disappointing, it's hardly surprising.
The tournament has been treated with thinly veiled disinterest by its own governing body, so it seems only appropriate that FIFA's international figurehead and all-round fucklord didn't bother turning up. (Although Sepp might get a pass on this one since he could get arrested if he leaves Switzerland.)
A lot has been written over the course of the Women's World Cup about the shameful lack of funding, resources and respect that FIFA dedicates to the women's game. Although it's tempting to apportion all of the blame to FIFA, the reality is that there are still stark differences in the development of the sport between seemingly analogous nations.
Despite ranking similarly in the gender-related development index, the U.S. makes England look like a bunch of chumps when it comes to the progress of women's football. After their victory in Vancouver, the U.S. women's team will return home not only as World Cup champions, but also as Olympic Gold Medallists following their success in London in 2012. It's a real kick in the tits for the Lionesses that, despite winning instant qualification for Rio 2016, Team Great Britain will not be sending a women's football team to the next Olympic games. The decision was made a result of petty politicking, but it cruelly denies a crucial phase in the development of women's football as a national sport. If there's to be any hope of England exploiting the boost in interest created by the World Cup, then it's imperative for us to follow the example of our pals across the pond in other critical areas.
The indisputable starting point has to be with England's local women's clubs and the national football leagues they play in. The Football Association Women's Super League (WSL) is starved of support and turnout at matches is pitifully low. The average attendance for a 2014 WSL League 1 game was lower than a Fountains of Wayne concert, at just 728 fans per match. This demoralising figure is even worse when compared to average season attendance for the WSL's American equivalent: turnout at National Women's Soccer League games was 4,137 per match last year.
Support for English women's football hasn't always been so pitifully small: the sport actually enjoyed a huge following before it was banned from being played on any FA affiliated grounds in 1921. The ban pretty much came as a direct response to the high attendance at a Dick Kerr Ladies' game played to a crowd of 53,000 at Goodison Park, on Dec. 26, 1920. The official reason given for the ban was that football 'damaged women's bodies,' which sounds totally legitimate, and not at all like some dudes got scared of women's liberation. England has a well-established wartime tradition of letting women do men's jobs and then getting pissed off when they turn out to be better at them, so naturally this ban lasted until 1971 and achieved its goal of stifling the growth of the sport.
This year's Women's World Cup has boosted interest in the game, but the future of English women's football is contingent on people actually starting to give enough of a shit about it to invest emotionally and financially in their local teams. A season ticket to watch the current WSL champion Liverpool Ladies F.C. only costs £30, which is comfortably less than a single ticket to a Liverpool men's Premier League match. In fact, you could take your entire family to the Select Stadium for the whole season, and it'd only set you back by £60, which is a fucking bargain for a stake in improving our nation's gender equality. Although this investment from fans is crucial, it's implausible to consider a growth in English women's football without corporate sponsorship deals. It's a myth that commercial funding follows an existing fan base, and the women's game needs huge injections of cash from big business to sufficiently develop. This is kind of starting to happen already, since Scottish and Southern Energy recently announced a seven-figure sponsorship deal with the Women's FA. I guess someone over there must have heard me complaining really loudly for the last few years.
There's one more thing that England can learn from the U.S., and it's not how to make friendly conversation with strangers or openly express sentimentality. The future of English women's football depends on the cultivation of a wealth of youth players, and that can only be achieved by embedding the game in schools. The U.S. are much better than England at encouraging young girls to get involved in playing soccer, largely thanks to Title IX, which formally removed barriers to participation. According to FIFA, only 12 percent of youth soccer players are girls, yet in the U.S. 40 percent of all FIFA-registered youth are female. In high schools, young women make up 47 percent of all soccer players.
So far, the best proposal the UK has had for solving sport's gender gap came from the Minister for Sport and Equality, who genuinely suggested that girls should be offered more feminine sports, like cheerleading. Thankfully that brainwave got shelved along with home economics and needlepoint class, but it highlights the unfeasibility of an American-style boom in women's football if the gender norms underlying divisions in participation go unchallenged. England has a real opportunity to capitalise on the excitement generated by the Lionesses' success in Canada, as evidenced by the increase in American high school girls playing soccer after the 1999 World Cup. I certainly would have stopped faking my period every single gym lesson if we'd been encouraged to play football instead of appropriately feminine sports.
FIFA are a deplorable brigade of jackasses that have made it their business to undermine women's football at every available opportunity. Yet despite my greatest efforts, it's difficult to place the responsibility for the future of English women's football solely on their putrid shoulders. The Lionesses have made history in Canada, and it's critical that the excitement generated by their success doesn't go uncultivated. Sampson's squad have set a process in motion, but now it's up to everyone else to use their success as a catalyst for the development of women's football at every level. If we can actually get our shit together, and emulate the precedent set by the U.S. after their 1999 World Cup victory, then all the downtrodden and disillusioned England fans might get to see their national squad lifting a trophy again soon.