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USWNT women's soccer celebrating winning the world cup

History Of Women’s Soccer: The Challenges & The Current Game

Women’s soccer is capturing the attention of the sporting world. More girls and women have participated in the game in the last few years than ever before, and viewing numbers have reached an all-time high.

What Is Women’s Soccer?

Women’s soccer is an association football team sport played by women. Currently, 176 national teams participate internationally in multiple countries at the professional level. The only difference is that the team of players is women.

The rules are the same, and the soccer field and the goalposts are the same. The aim is simple – to work alongside your teammates, move the ball up the pitch, and score more goals than your opponent within 90 minutes.

Like the men’s game, there are now professional women’s soccer leagues worldwide. But getting to this point has been a windy and tumultuous road. Unfortunately, the early years of the women’s soccer game have a long and troubled history.

Women’s soccer has roots back to the 1800s in the United Kingdom. A match that drew over 50,000 spectators in the 1920s is considered the “first golden age”.

The women’s game had to overcome adversity and discrimination to get to where it is today. A significant setback that delayed the development of women’s soccer for an agonizing 50 years occurred when the Football Association banned women’s games on the grounds used by member clubs in 1921.

To fully understand and appreciate the game’s success today, we must go back to 19th-century England.

early 20th century women's soccer game

History Of Women’s Soccer

An account of a match played on Shrove Tuesday, 23 February 1773, is the earliest conclusive evidence of women participating in a soccer match.

Walton, a village in Yorkshire, hosted a game between married gentlemen and bachelors.

They were in trouble after more than an hour of struggle, including several broken shins. Then a bold woman entered the field to help her husband when she saw him hard pressed. She did not allow the “superior strength” of her opponent to intimidate her, instead “pursuing the ball with a determination that brought her victory.”

In 1795, a doctor from Inveresk in Midlothian noted that the women in his parish “had masculine manners.” Neither of them found this surprising since these “fishwives” performed the same tasks as the men. Women who were married and unmarried played football on Shrove Tuesday in addition to playing golf frequently.

Several modern commentators speculate that the game’s origin was a fertility ritual because married women always won.

In the 1880s, many women across the United Kingdom were playing soccer. Women’s soccer was gaining traction, with matches being organized across the country, much to the dismay of many men.

The first recorded international women’s football match in Britain was played in Edinburgh in 1881. A Scottish team defeated an English team 3-0.

The British Ladies’ Football Club was founded in 1894. Nettie Honeyball and Lady Florence Dixie came up with this idea. Nettie saw professional football as a business opportunity and was eager to turn young middle-class women into players.

On the other hand, Florence utilized her privilege to speak out on a variety of political and social issues – including family planning and appropriate clothing for women.

Soccer back then was much more violent and physical than today, with many people horrified that women would choose to get involved in such a ‘masculine sport.’ Women’s soccer matches often spark riots, with pitch invasions frequently occurring.

When Did Women’s Soccer Start

One of the first-ever women’s soccer teams felt the full force of this resistance. In 1881, Helen ‘Graham’ Matthews founded one of the first female soccer teams. It was known as Mrs. Graham’s XI, based in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Players in her squad often had to hide behind false names to avoid the targeted backlash that women’s soccer players had to endure at the time.

Their first significant match attracted a crowd in the thousands, but it was hastily called off in the 55th minute when unruly spectators entered the soccer field. Unfortunately, the team didn’t fully recover from this soccer match which attracted some callous media coverage.

Nettie Honeyball: early icon for women's soccer in the UK

Nettie Honeyball

A second women’s soccer team was formed over a decade later, in 1894. This team was named British Ladies FC and was founded by a woman named Nettie Honeyball. Nettie captained the side, building a loyal squad of almost 30 players who wanted to be part of the identity.

Some of the public showed interest in the soccer team, finding them amusing, while others saw it as a threat to the masculinity of the game.

On 23 March 1895, Honeyball organized an inter-squad match, advertising the sale of tickets to the general public. The idea that women would be making a profit from a soccer match enraged many men. However, the game went ahead, and more than 10,000 people filled the stands. North London defeated the South 7-1

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Many more spectators were said to have been turned away at the gates. There was a great deal of negative press coverage. The North’s left-winger, Miss Gilbert, was unkindly called “Little Tommy” for wearing the supposedly unfeminine kit.

Over the next couple of years, the women’s soccer team continued to play exhibition matches until the side was forced to disband due to a lack of funds.

However, interest in women’s soccer games didn’t seem to falter. It saw a resurgence 20 years later and quickly became popular again. Around the time of the first world war, men’s leagues were stopped as soldiers went to battle.

In their absence, women organized their matches primarily to raise money for the soldiers. On Boxing Day, 1920, a match between Dick, Kerr Ladies, and St Helen Ladies took place. The game was held at, what is now Everton Football Club, and attracted an incredible crowd of 53,000 spectators.

At least 10,000 more were turned away from the gates. The match was forever marked as a milestone in the women’s game. Not only was it one of the biggest turnouts to a women’s match, but it also triggered the banning of women’s soccer.

The Ban On The Women’s Soccer Game

The crowd numbers and media attention at this legendary women’s soccer match caused a lot of tribulation. Rumors began to spread that women were getting paid to play soccer. The idea that women could play soccer professionally caused public outrage, especially amongst men.

In 1921, the Football Association of England (the FA) banned women from playing soccer and having access to club facilities. They deemed the game ‘unsuitable for females’ and ‘should not be encouraged.’ The ban completely crushed women’s soccer. It took an astonishing 50 years for the ban to be lifted finally.

In 1971, the same year the ban ended, the first National Cup for Women, known as the Mitre Challenge Trophy, was held in England. This competition later morphed into what is known today as the Women’s FA Cup.

Since the ban ended, women’s soccer has continued to grow exponentially. Twenty-nine million women and girls are playing soccer worldwide, which is set to increase. The inclusive spirit of soccer empowers women on and off the soccer field.

Globally, there are 176 national teams and several women’s professional leagues that continue to strengthen. In the United Kingdom, viewing figures for the Women’s Super League (WSL) are set to shoot up by more than 350 percent annually, thanks to new broadcast deals for the 2022/23 season.

The History Of USA Women’s Soccer

Unorganized USA women’s soccer matches and games were noted in history books throughout the first half of the 20th century. It would only last a year or two before these non-affiliated women’s leagues disbanded or were banned.

In 1950 and 1951, four teams played in the Craig Club Girls Soccer League, the first organized women’s soccer league in the United States. Players ranged in age from 16 to 22.

As a result of Title IX legislation passed in 1972 (a law that passed one year after the English Football Association lifted the ban on women’s soccer), gender equality became mandatory in education, including collegiate athletics, leading to more organized  teams. In 1976, Brown and Smith played the first varsity women’s college soccer game.

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Varsity college teams began spreading in the early 1980s, and college soccer became increasingly popular to get involved in. Despite this, women in the United States had limited professional opportunities, and the first women’s league, the USL W-League, wasn’t established until 1995.

There are now around 1700 colleges that have a women’s soccer team. College soccer in the US is regarded as one of the top pathways for developing players, with the most talented athletes competing in the top NCAA divisions.

1995 marked the launch of the first national USA women’s soccer league, and 2001 saw the debut of the first professional women’s league.

2019 uswnt world cup squad

US Women’s Soccer (USWNT)

The United States women’s national team (USWNT) was formed in 1983, but its first games were not played until 1985. In its early years, the team competed in friendly tournaments against European teams since few competitions for women’s national teams existed.

The USWNT participated in the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991, where they first stamped their dominance, beating Norway 2-1 in the World Cup final. In 1999, the World Cup was hosted in the United States.

Due to tense penalty kicks in front of a sold-out Rose Bowl stadium, the USWNT’s popularity exploded after winning the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Due to the success of the attendance of the World Cup, and the breakout of SARS in Asia, the USA hosted the 2003 tournament too.

The USWNT has won the FIFA Women’s World Cup four times, making them the most successful women’s soccer national team in history. They hold the title of world champions after claiming the silverware in France in 2019.

The USWNT has qualified for the 2023 Women’s World Cup, which will be held in New Zealand and Australia.

one of many unc womens soccer champion team

NCAA College Soccer

Some of the world’s best soccer players have come through the US college system, including US national team players. Young, talented international players are also attracted to what the NCAA tournament system offers. The best athletes from all over the world can often receive full NCAA division scholarships to study and play soccer at a competitive level.

The University of North Carolina, or UNC, has long been regarded as one of the best colleges for women’s soccer. The ‘Tar Heels’ have won 21 out of the 38 NCAA tournament national titles. College soccer is classed as a pathway into the women’s professional game.

How Many Professional Women’s Soccer Teams Are There

Each year, the best college soccer players can be drafted into the NWSL (the National Women’s Soccer League), which is regarded as one of the world’s top soccer leagues. There are currently twelve women’s professional soccer teams in the NWSL.

It was reported that the Utah Royals would be the likely 13th expansion team. San Francisco Bay Area, Tampa, and Boston were the three finalists for the 14th expansion club. The 2024 season is expected to see these teams join.

From February to October, the National Women’s Soccer League season runs, followed by the NWSL Challenge Cup, the regular season, and the playoffs. During the regular season, each team will play 22 home and away games in a double round-robin format.

The salary cap for each team in season 2022 is $1.1 million, and the minimum salary per player is $35,000.

The strong set-up of the United States women’s soccer program produces some of the best athletes and is why the USWNT has been and continues to be so successful.

Many young girls are inspired by the USWNT players and set their sights early on becoming professional soccer players, which only helps drive the game forward.

Around the world, here is the breakdown of Women’s soccer leagues:

  • England – 12 teams (Women’s Super League)
  • Spain – 16 teams (Primera Division)
  • France – 12 teams (D1 Arkema)
  • Germany – 12 teams (FLYERALARM Frauen-Bundesliga)
  • Sweden – 12 teams (Damallsvenskan)
  • Norway – 10 teams (Toppserien)
  • Japan – 12 teams (WE League)
  • Australia – 9 teams(A-League Women)

Scottish supporters at the FIFA women's world cup

Women’s Soccer Viewership

In the United States, the National Women’s Soccer League, or the NWSL, broke viewership records by almost 300 percent in the 2021 season. In the UK, 6.2m people watched live a Women’s Super League match in 2021 without watching an English Premier League game on TV. (That is 10% of the entire population)

This boost of spectators was likely helped by partnerships between the league and viewing platforms such as CBS Sports and Twitch. Over the coming years, it is expected that there will be more investment in women’s soccer games throughout the world. This injection of interest will only help to attract more visibility and sponsorships.

The FIFA Women’s World Cup has undoubtedly been a massive influence in promoting and expanding women’s soccer. With each successive Women’s World Cup, the viewing numbers climb. The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France surpassed 1.12 billion viewers, making it the most prominent women’s sports event globally.

This event, held every four years, brings together the best women’s soccer players from all over the globe, whose performances are inspirational to future generations.

USA Women’s Soccer Jersey

The United States women’s soccer jerseys, shorts, and socks always feature a combination of red, white, and blue (the colors of the national flag). Several exceptions have been made, including a gold shirt in 2007, a black shirt in 2011, and a black trim with neon green socks for the 2015 World Cup.

The Nike brand sponsorship of USA Soccer began in 1995 and was renewed in December 2013 through 2022. Since 2012, the USWNT team has worn the same kit as the men’s national team, beginning with the red and white hoop design.

After the World Cup success in 2019, USWNT jersey sales soared, outpacing any other US soccer jersey sales, including those of the men.

The US soccer logo has undergone many design changes since it was first created in 1913. Unveiled in 2016, the current crest is stripped back to basics but is nevertheless bold and empowering.

Some national and club teams use one or more stars as part of (or beside) the team badge on their soccer jerseys to commemorate important accomplishments in the team’s history. In 1999, the US women’s soccer team began wearing two stars to represent their two World Cup soccer titles.

A third star was added after their third World Cup title in July 2015, and a fourth star was added for 2019.

The US Stadium Home and Away jerseys are made from lightweight, breathable material and are modeled on what the pros wear on the field. The recognizable USA soccer logo is on the front, sporting the four stars on top representing their world cup wins.

Best Female Soccer Player In The World

So who is the best women’s soccer player in the world? Arguably, one of the most exciting female soccer players is Marta Vieira da Silva, a legendary player from Brazil. Marta has won the FIFA World Player of the Year/Best FIFA Women’s Player six times.

She also holds the record for scoring the most goals in Women’s World Cup history, hitting the back of the net 17 times. Spanish and Barcelona star Alexia Putellas won the Ballon d’Or for 2021 and 2022 and the FIFA Women’s Soccer Player Of The Year Award, narrowly beating Chelsea’s Sam Kerr and teammate Jennifer Hermoso.

Another iconic figure in women’s soccer is Mia Hamm, who starred at the first-ever Women’s World Cup held in 1991. She is considered by many to be the best US player of all time. Her career in the USWNT spanned 17 years and saw her win two World Cups and two gold medals at the 1996 and 2004 Olympics.

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Other recognizable US women’s soccer players’ names include Abby Wambach, Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Kristine Lilly, Tiffeny Milbrett, Julie Ertz, Heather O’Reilly, April Heinrichs, Carla Overbeck, Brianna Scurry, Brandi Chastain, Christie Pearce Rampone, Julie Foudy, Hope Solo, Michelle Akers, and Megan Rapinoe.

Most of the United States Women’s Soccer Team have become household names. The US national team has a long history as being arguably, the best soccer team in the world.

Best Women’s Soccer Teams

Some of the best women’s football clubs worldwide are current Champions League winners FC Barcelona, Chelsea, FC Wolfsburg, Umea IK in Sweden, Arsenal, and Olympique Lyonnais in France. These clubs have had successful periods over the last twenty years and are the elite clubs in their countries.

The Washington Spirit is the current champion of the NWSL in the USA. The Portland Thorns are the current shield winners. They are also the current Challenge Cup champions. North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns have been the best women’s teams since the inception of the NWSL.

Women's soccer world cup being held in australia and new zealand in 2023

How Often Is Women’s World Cup Soccer Played

The Women’s World Cup is held every four years. The first FIFA Women’s World Championship was held in China in 1991. There have been 8 Women’s World Cups, with the next scheduled in 2023. Four national teams have won eight World Cups. They are the USA (3 times), Germany (2 times), and Japan and Norway once.

The Women’s World Cup has been hosted by six countries. China and the United States have hosted the tournament twice each, while Canada, France, Germany, and Sweden have hosted it once each.

The Road Ahead For Women In Soccer

So, as you can see, women’s soccer has come a long way since the 1880s. It seems that the women’s game is quickly catching up to the men’s. An astonishing feat, given the 50-year setback. However, one area that still causes serious debate is the wage gap between male and female professional soccer players.

The USWNT is leading the charge in this equal-pay battle – filing a lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation in 2019. Despite being some of the highest-paid players in the women’s game, the US team stood to fight against pay discrimination. They argued that even though they generate more revenue than men’s side, they are still only paid a fraction of what the men earn.

The highest-paid female soccer player in history is former USWNT star Carli Lloyd. Her annual salary was estimated to be $518,000. In comparison, Lionel Messi, the top-paid men’s player in the world, rakes in over three million dollars per week.

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The US women’s soccer pay gap is even more evident when you examine the entire spread of players at a professional level. For example, in 2022, the minimum league salary for a player in the NWSL was $35,000. Compare this to the men’s equivalent MLS, which saw minimum salaries for male players set at $70,250.

The gap is even more startling when you look at the women’s professional soccer game in England, with most professional EPL players earning more in one day than most WSL players in an entire season.

There is plenty of more work to be done to close the gender pay gap in women’s soccer, but the future holds promise. With interest exploding in recent years, the game will likely attract more attention and investment.

Hopefully, this injection of cash will trickle down to the players themselves.

Women’s Soccer Facts

Who was the first woman to play soccer?
It is difficult to determine who the first woman to play soccer was, as women have played it informally for centuries.

When was the first women’s soccer match played?
The first recorded women’s soccer match took place in 1895 in Scotland. It was played between two teams of women factory workers and was documented by the Scottish press at the time.

However, women’s soccer has a much longer history than that, with various forms of the game being played by women for centuries.

The modern version of the game, as we know it today, developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the first international women’s soccer match took place in 1920 between France and England.

Can a woman play on the men’s soccer team?
Generally, it is rare for women to play on men’s soccer teams, as there are typically significant differences in physical abilities and playing styles between male and female players. However, there have been a few cases in which women have played on men’s teams at various levels of competition.

In some cases, women have been able to compete successfully at the youth or amateur levels, while in other cases, they have played professionally.

Kristine Lilly

When did they start playing soccer at the collegiate level?
Women’s soccer has been played at the collegiate level in the United States for many years. The first recorded intercollegiate soccer match occurred in 1895 between Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley.

However, in the 1970s and 1980s, women’s soccer began to gain widespread recognition and support at the collegiate level. The NCAA began sponsoring a soccer championship in 1982, and the sport has since become a popular and competitive part of collegiate athletics.

When did women’s professional soccer begin?
Women’s professional soccer has a complicated history as it has evolved, and there have been various professional leagues and tournaments for women’s soccer at different times.

However, the first professional women’s soccer league in the United States was the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA), which was founded in 2001 and played for three seasons before folding in 2003.

NWSL: San Diego Wave FC at Portland Thorns FC

How long has the NWSL been around?
The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) was founded in 2012, so it has existed for over a decade. It is the top level of women’s professional soccer in the country and is currently comprised of twelve teams.

What is the top women’s league in Europe?
The Women’s Super League (WSL) is England’s top women’s football league. Established in 2010, it is run by the Football Association and features twelve professional teams.

How many professional soccer teams are there?
It is difficult to accurately determine the exact number of professional women’s soccer teams worldwide, as the sport is played at various levels of professionalism, and there are many different leagues and tournaments. However, some of the top professional leagues include:

  • The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) in the United States
  • The FA Women’s Super League (FA WSL) in England
  • The Frauen-Bundesliga in Germany
  • The Division 1 Féminine in France
  • The Primera División Femenina in Spain

There are also many other professional leagues and tournaments for women’s soccer worldwide, including in Sweden, Australia, Canada, Brazil, and Japan.

When was the USWNT soccer team founded?
The United States women’s national soccer team (USWNT) was founded in 1985. It is controlled by the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), the governing body for soccer in the United States.

uswnt coach

When did the first women’s World Cup start?
The first FIFA Women’s World Cup was held in 1991. It took place in China and was won by the United States, who defeated Norway 2-1 in the final. The tournament was held every four years after that and has become one of the women’s top international soccer competitions.

The most recent Women’s World Cup was held in 2019 and was won by the United States, who defeated the Netherlands 2-0 in the final.

How many teams participated in the first women’s World Cup?
The first FIFA Women’s World Cup was held in 1991, and 12 teams participated. The teams were Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China PR, Denmark, Italy, Japan, Nigeria, Norway, Sweden, and the United States.

How many World Cups have the US women’s soccer won?
The United States women’s national soccer team has won the FIFA Women’s World Cup four times. They won the tournament’s inaugural edition in 1991 and then again in 1999, 2015, and 2019.

The US team has also finished as runners-up in the World Cup three times and has won four Olympic gold medals in women’s soccer. The US team is widely regarded as one of the most successful in the world and has played a significant role in the growth and development globally.

When did women’s soccer become an Olympic Sport?
Women’s soccer became an Olympic sport in 1996 when it was included in the program for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia.

The first Olympic tournament was won by the United States, who defeated China PR 2-1 in the final. Since then, women’s soccer has been a regular part of the Olympic program and is one of the most popular and competitive sports at the Games.

References:

https://sites.duke.edu/wcwp/2016/01/22/the-forgotten-early-history-of-womens-soccer/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women’s_association_football

Images: 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/sports/soccer/usa-women-world-cup-history/ (main image)

https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/statue-best-woman-footballer-world-16205952

Nettie Honeyball. (2022, April 6). In Wikipedia. https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nettie_Honeyball

https://athlonsports.com/world-cup/uswnt-team-usa-fifa-womens-world-cup-roster

http://flickr.com/photo/77744839@N00/313338382

https://www.fourfourtwo.com/features/we-were-promised-sell-outs-womens-world-cup-so-why-empty-seats

https://www.nzfootball.co.nz/newsarticle/94972

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

David J. Phillip / AP