The world is at their feet: Golden girls at football's World Cup

The millionaire superstars of English sport have had a miserable summer. But one team, at least, are doing their country proud. Perhaps, says Andy McSmith, it's time to get behind them
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The Independent Football

Contrary to what the bloke down the pub has been saying, the England football team is not rubbish. It is, in fact, enjoying a brilliant run, having made it through to the quarter-finals of the World Cup. England's top striker is rated the fifth best player in the world.

But unfortunately, none of this applies to Steve McLaren's squad. It refers to the under-publicised, and under-funded achievements of the England women's football team.

The 21-woman squad is currently in China for the Fifa Women's World Cup – they flew business class - for the first time in their history – where they have played three matches in front of crowds of more than 20,000 or more, and remain undefeated.

The England midfielder, Kelly Smith, has emerged as a star of the championship, having scored four goals, putting her on par with two of the world's greatest players, Marta, of Brazil, and the German captain, Birgit Prinz. She was, however, given a ferocious telling off by the team's long-serving manager, Hope Powell, for removing her boots and kissing them, in front of the cameras, after scoring against Japan. She has kept her promise not to do it again.

The team's success has passed almost unnoticed on the main news bulletins, although a growing number of people have been turning on daytime television to watch the live coverage. On Monday they were rewarded by the spectacle of England slaughtering Argentina 6-1. A dedicated group of supporters – many of them friends and relatives of the team have made the trip to China to cheer them on.

Liz Lewis, a south London headteacher who was frankly not a football fan, was persuaded to make the journey. "I am amazed to be enjoying it so much," she said. "I took a novel to the first game and was up shouting 'England' with the best of them.

"There are hundreds of fans here, which must be such a pleasure for the team when they are so used to feeble gates at home. The Chinese take our side in surprising numbers and join in bouts of Mexican waving. They are less impressed with the few who shout at the referee in coarse language."

Football is not the only sport in which English women are doing well. The women's rugby team reached the final of the IRB Rugby World Cup last years. The women's cricket team won the Ashes in 2005, and are currently ranked third in the world. The rowing team qualified for the Beijing Olympics, beating Germany and China.

But football, believe it or not, is the country's top female sport, played regularly by over 1.6 million women or girls, more than any other competitive game, including those we might think of as games for girls, such as hockey or volleyball.

The Football Association – once run by men who thought it was an affront to nature to see a women in football gear – is now trying to attract more girls into the sport, although its critics say that progress is disgracefully slow, and the money invested is inadequate.

Yet instead of pocketing £100,000 a week, like some of their male counterparts, England's top players will come back from China with a small fee to cover lost earnings, plus a few perks such as free phones and suitcases provided by sponsors, and will continue with their everyday lives.

Their situation is vastly better than it was before the FA took over in 1993, but even now, no woman, however skilful, earns more than a pittance from playing in matches. A few have been taken on by the big clubs in other capacities. Arsenal, for instance, have hired Kelly Smith and England's top defender, Kaye White. Smith coaches teenagers in the Arsenal Girls' Academy, and White works for the club's Football in the Community scheme.

But Vicky Exley, who came on as a substitute in the Argentina and scored the final goal, a penalty, is a full-time postwoman in South Yorkshire. Two others in the squad – midfielder Katie Chapman and defender Mary Philip – are full-time mothers. Others are at university, and one, Jody Handley, will be job hunting when she gets back.

Football has produced a legion of hard-bitten heroes not many of whom could be described as being in touch with their feminine side. The game's appalling treatment of gays was strongly criticised yesterday by the former England and Chelsea player Graeme le Saux, who was falsely labelled gay because he did not fit with the game's laddish culture. This rumour "had the serious potential to damage my career," he told Radio 4's Today programme.

However, Le Saux was luckier than Justin Fashanu of Norwich City and Nottingham Forest, Britain's first £1m black footballer, who committed suicide after coming out as gay.

In the old days, women who played football were also likely to be looked upon as freaks, although matches between women's teams predated the 20th century. In 1902, the FA Council sought to stamp them out with an edict to all its members, forbidding them to play against "lady teams". Attitudes softened during the First World War, when women were drafted into factories to replace the men who had gone to fight, and teams were organised to raise money for war charities. Dick Kerr's Ladies, from the Dick Kerr's munitions factory in Preston, was the most formidable women's team and a crowd of 53,000 turned out to watch them play St Helen's Ladies at Goodison Park on Boxing Day 1920. In 2002, their star player, Lily Parr, belatedly became the first woman to be inducted into the National Football Museum Hall of Fame. Hope Powell received the same accolade a year later.

The spectacle of women's matches occasionally drawing bigger crowds than the men's was more that the FA could bear. In December 1921, they banned women from playing on all Football League grounds, because of their "strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged."

That relegated the women's game to the fringes until a resurgence of interest inspired by the 1966 World Cup. The Women's FA was launched in 1969 and the FA ban on women's matches was lifted in 1972. By 1993, there were 80 women's clubs. Within a decade there were 8,000 – undeterred by a 2003 survey which revealed that only 6 per cent of football grounds had changing facilities for women.

The 2002 film Bend It Like Beckham, went a long way to overturn the notion that no normal female would want to be seen on a football pitch, making Hollywood stars out of its two female leads, Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightley, whose appearances in football kit did nothing to harm their sex appeal.

Even so, a year after the film's release, no less a figure than the president of Fifa, Sepp Blatter, suggested: "Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts. Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so."

Alex Stone, an FA spokesman who is in China with the team, said: "People have got a lot of outmoded views of what your average female footballer is and looks like. They're athletic, they can be attractive, and they can be really great role models for girls."

On Saturday, the England team faces a gruelling test when they take on the United States. The Americans have never had British hang-ups about women footballers, and have millions of registered players. Their team, consequently, is one of the best in the world.

Anyone wanting to cheer on the English from afar can message them by logging on to the FA's Girls United site