England chase glory in their quest to ignite women's game
Hope Powell's squad must deliver in the World Cup if domestic league is to flourish
Every four years England's male players crumble under the burden of excessive expectation, and the need to extinguish 'x years of hurt' since 1966. Their female counterparts, however, carry an even greater responsibility into the Women's World Cup, which starts tomorrow.
In theory, the distaff game is in good shape. England have qualified for their fourth successive major tournament, there are central contracts for key players, and the long-awaited national league is up-and-running.
The reality, though, is that this progress is fragile. The Women's Super League (WSL) is so-named because a sponsor could not be found. Even with ticket prices at the eight clubs peaking at £6, crowds are usually measured in hundreds. The non-League venues hardly add lustre to the competition, while the central contracts, at £16,000-a-woman (per year, not week), are not enough for players to live on in isolation.
The Football Association, which is not exactly flush with cash after investing in Wembley and Burton against a backdrop of uncertain future television income, has guaranteed the WSL, whose clubs they subsidise, for two years. There will then be a review. Since women's football is largely ignored by the media outside big international tournaments – notwithstanding ESPN's coverage of the WSL – much depends on how the women perform in Germany over the next few weeks, and on the GB women's team in the 2012 Olympics.
Trevor Brooking, the FA's director of football development, and a supporter of the women's game, is acutely aware that this is a make-or-break period. "There are a lot of issues about the WSL," he concedes. "Will they get the gates? Can it become a summer game? What we have to see is how we emerge from the World Cup and the Olympics. The franchises are protected for two years, it is how we will take it on to the next level. Will the WSL break-even? I don't know, that's a difficult one."
Television coverage is crucial. Viewing figures on ESPN are said to be similar to those the channel attracts for Scottish Premier League games. The World Cup is on the BBC (admittedly via the red button) and so will the Olympics.
The players are well aware how important the next few weeks are. "We are a figurehead for women's football," said Birmingham winger Karen Carney, "so there's a lot of pressure because if we do well, then the profile will go to another level. People latch on to success, so if we can be successful the media will get behind us. If we don't, where do you go from there?"
Everyone recognises that the WSL is critical to the development of the game in England. Prior to its launch, Arsenal dominated the game and only a few of their matches were competitive. Talent is spread more widely in the new league, with Birmingham leading the table.
"It's made a massive difference, not everyone's at Arsenal, they're all over the country," said Carney, who herself left Birmingham for Arsenal at 19, before playing in the United States, where five of the England squad remain. She added: "The Americans have had a pro league and that's why they had that edge."
Carney, now 23, played in Chicago for two seasons, returning when her hometown club won one of the WSL franchises. Birmingham, who play at Stratford Town, charge £6 admission and attract crowds of 450-600.
That represents significant progress. Brooking recalled when he started working at the FA (in 2003) and mentioned he was going to watch a women's match, the response was: "A ladies game? You mean girls play football?" He added: "I think it is now acceptable for women to play football. That is a victory in itself."
Hope Powell, an England player from 1983-98, and manager since then, has been involved from the days when players had full-time jobs outside the game, and slept on gym floors at tournaments. Now players have full medical provision, top-line accommodation, and she has scouting support. "We have progressed dramatically since I was a player," she said, "it has moved steadily. Has it moved quick enough? Probably not, but it is moving."
Powell's regular appeals for more funding raises eyebrows at the FA, with some officials pointing out the women's game brings in negligible income, yet is well-resourced. But Powell, who has driven many of the changes, makes no apology. "Funding will never be enough until we win something, then win something, then win something. We are doing OK internationally, we are qualifying, WSL is great, what next? If we don't go 'what next?' we'll be left behind."
Powell is delighted Kelly Smith, England's leading player, is fully fit for the first time in three tournaments, but has had to gamble on the condition of captain and centre-half Faye White, and midfielder Fara Williams following knee injuries.
Germany, hosts and reigning European and World champions, are favourites. England will probably need to win their group, ahead of Japan, Mexico and New Zealand, to avoid them in the quarter-finals. The tournament opens in the Berlin Olympic Stadium tomorrow, when 70,000 are expected to watch Germany play Canada. England begin their campaign against Mexico, in VfL Wolfsburg's stadium, on Monday.
World Cup Details
Group A: Canada, France, Germany, Nigeria
Group B: England, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand
Group C: Colombia, North Korea, Sweden, United States
Group D: Australia, Brazil, Guinea, Norway
Quarter-finals: 9, 10 July
Semi-finals: 13 July
Third-place play-off: 16 July
Final (Frankfurt) 17 July
TV: BBCi, Eurosport
Nigeria v France, 2pm, Sinsheim
Germany v Canada, 5pm, Berlin
Mexico, Monday, 5pm, Wolfsburg
New Zealand, 1 July, 5.15pm, Dresden
Japan, 5 July, 5.15pm, Augsburg
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