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USWNT women's soccer celebrating winning the world cup

Women’s Soccer: The History, Challenges & The Current State

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.

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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 are women.

The rules are the same, the soccer field is the same, 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 for women’s soccer players. 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 drew over 50,000 spectators in the 1920s, which was considered the “first golden age” of women’s soccer.

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 need to go back to 19th century England.

early 20th century women's soccer game

History Of Women’s Soccer

Towards the end of 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.

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 matches would often spark riots, with pitch invasions a frequent occurrence.

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 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 known as Nettie Honeyball. Nettie Honeyball also captained the side, building a loyal squad of almost 30 players. 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.

In 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 anyway, and more than 10,000 people filled the stands.

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Many more spectators were said to have been turned away at the gates. 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 the women’s soccer game didn’t seem to falter. Women’s soccer 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 off to battle.

In their absence, women decided to organize 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.

before they banned women's soccer in UK

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 that the game was ‘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 finally be lifted.

In 1971, the same year that 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. There are currently 29 million women and girls playing soccer worldwide, with this number set to increase.

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 2021/22 season.

USA national women's soccer league match

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 the establishment of more organized women’s soccer 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 primarily 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 attendances of the World Cup, and the breakout of SARS in Asia, the US 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 the history of the game. They currently hold the title of being world champions after claiming the silverware in France 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 women’s soccer leagues. There are currently twelve women’s professional soccer teams in the NWSL.

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.

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 formed 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 the women’s soccer game 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 plenty of 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.

Alexia Putellas winning the 2021 ballon d'or trophy for best women's soccer player

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 to watch 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 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 women’s soccer 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 Rampone, Julie Foudy, Hope Solo, Michelle Akers and Megan Rapinoe.

In fact, 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 women’s 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 schedule in 2023. Four national teams have won the 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

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. 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 the 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 one million dollars per week.

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The US women’s soccer pay gap is even more evident when you look across 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 do in an entire season.

Clearly, 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 in women’s soccer 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.

southampton preparing for 1970-71 mitre cup (FA womens cup final)

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