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

Tomorrow's Fixtures

Nigeria v France, 2pm, Sinsheim

Germany v Canada, 5pm, Berlin

England's fixtures

Mexico, Monday, 5pm, Wolfsburg

New Zealand, 1 July, 5.15pm, Dresden

Japan, 5 July, 5.15pm, Augsburg

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
News
i100
Life and Style
fashion
News
videoJapanese prepare for the afterlife by testing out coffins
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford attends Blade Runner at Target Presents AFI's Night at the Movies at ArcLight Cinemas on 24 April, 2013 in Hollywood, California
film... but Ridley Scott won't direct
Sport
Hughes is hit by a bouncer from Sean Abbott
cricketStephen Brenkley on batsman's tragic flaw that led to critical injury
Sport
Dejected England players applaud the fans following their team's 3-0 defeat
football

News
people

Actress isn't a fan of Ed Miliband

News
The Bounceway, designed by Architecture for Humanity
newsLondon to add 'The Bounceway' to commuting options
Life and Style
Stefan Gates with some mince flies
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Rooney Mara plays a white Tiger Lily in forthcoming film Pan
filmFirst look at Rooney Mara in Pan
Life and Style
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
tech
Life and Style
health

Do you qualify – and how do you get it?

Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital