There has never been a better time to be a female footballer in England. Next spring will herald a new beginning for the sport in this country with the birth of the Super League that will finally enable the leading players to make a good living as professionals. Not since the long-forgotten days of the Dick Kerr Ladies has there been such a sense of optimism surrounding the women's game, but to ensure that feel-good factor remains it requires the national side to do their duty and qualify for the World Cup finals.
Tomorrow night in Shrewsbury Hope Powell, England's manager since 1998, will send her side out to take on Switzerland in the first leg of the play-off to qualify for next summer's World Cup finals in Germany. The crowd will be some 50,000 fewer than the huge numbers that once watched the women's game in its heyday between the wars, but the importance for the sport of this game and the second leg in Wohlen, a small town in the north of Switzerland, is immense.
In March, the Super League starts. Eight teams have been licensed by the Football Association, who are also providing £70,000 worth of central funding a year to each club, an amount the club is then expected to match to provide a level of budget never before seen in the women's game in this country. The idea is to shift women's football away from the men's game and play it across the summer, on better pitches in better weather and as truly a league of their own. The Super League was one of the main aims of Ian Watmore during his brief tenure as the FA's chief executive. Its introduction has already been delayed for a year due to the economic downturn so there is clearly concern within the governing body over the chances of success. They have though managed to secure the all-important television deal, with ESPN, and are keen for the coverage to be innovative, rather like Setanta tried to do with the Blue Square Premier. There could be interviews with managers during games and coverage of half-time team talks, while there are also suggestions the league may try out ideas such as goalline technology.
Qualifying for the World Cup is key for the league's debut season. England have only reached the finals twice before, the first in 1995 and then three years ago. In China they got as far as the quarter-finals, with the games being shown live on the BBC, as tomorrow's is. It led to a spurt in numbers taking up the game; football is now the leading female participation sport in this country. The problem is that in between tournaments interest wanes. Last year England reached their first final of the European Championships since 1984, before losing to Germany, but there is a growing belief that the current squad is the best ever and they are strong favourites to beat the Swiss.
"It's a massive, massive year for us, massive that we get there," said Rachel Unitt, who will win his 81st cap at full-back tomorrow since making her debut against France in 2000. "Five years ago we were probably just an average team but since Euro 2005 we've come on leaps and bounds and are now one of the best teams in the world – we are up there with the Germans and the Swedish. There is a real feeling that it is only a matter of time until we win something. The squad we have now is the best I have ever been involved in.
"Super League starts next year so it is so important for us to get to the World Cup. It will have an effect on the Super League and the support the domestic teams get if we are at the World Cup. It can only help the game back home."
Unitt plays her club football for Everton, who are expected to be one of the leading lights of the new set-up. There will be a salary cap, with each club allowed to pay up to four players more than £20,000. Last year the FA introduced central contracts, which are worth around £16,000 a year. It means that the top players will be able to earn in the region of £40,000. That may not even match their male counterparts' weekly wage packets, but it will allow most England players to plan for a full-time future in the game. With four players, and possibly more, from each club full-time it can only aid Powell and the national side, and it may also check the flow of players to the US, where the rewards still remain greater. Five of the current squad play in the US professional league, including Kelly Smith, regarded as one of the world's best strikers.
"Contracts have been a massive thing," said Unitt. "The girls were working full-time, nine to five, then training afterwards – it was tough. Now everyone is in peak condition and it shows. We are progressing and getting better and better."
Switzerland have never reached the finals and are ranked 26th in the world to England's ninth. Anything other than a convincing England win would be a huge surprise, and a very costly one. "It is vital to get to the World Cup for the English game," said Unitt with a determined nod. "Absolutely vital."
A different league
The First World War initiated a brief golden age for women's football, culminating in 53,000 attending Dick Kerr's Ladies' 4-0 victory over St Helens Ladies at Goodison Park on Boxing Day, 1920. This fruitful period came to an abrupt end in December 1921 when the FA banned women's participation on the basis that "...the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged".
It was not until 1971 that the FA finally lifted their ban, following the establishment of the Women's Football Association two years earlier. FIFA organised the first Women's World Cup in 1991 and three years later the FA inaugurated the Women's Premier League.
In 2009 the Women's Professional Soccer League was established in the United States, where five of the current England squad ply their trade.
* TV Times First-leg: Sunday, BBC 3, 7pm. Second-leg: Thursday, bbc.co.uk.Reuse content