No longer in it for kicks: women's football turns pro

After 90 years of condescension, our top players are on the verge of finally receiving the acclaim they deserve, reports Jonathan Brown
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It is after midnight in a crowded sports bar in a satellite town on the edge of Madrid and the women of Liverpool Ladies FC are not exactly drowning their sorrows. They are instead ruminating in a low key and largely alcohol-free way on the disappointment of the day past.

Yet despite having gone down 5-2 to Atletico Madrid Feminas in the broiling Spanish heat a few hours earlier, a sense of optimism is gripping the team – and the whole of women's football.

After nearly 90 years of segregation and condescension, the sport is poised to turn professional and – potentially – make stars of the best players who are unknown outside the tight-knit circle of women's soccer. Even for those at the very top of the game, it has been a hard slog thus far, and when the rewards do finally start to flow from the Football Association next season, the money would scarcely be enough to cover Wayne Rooney's room-service bill. But women footballers steadfastly refuse to bemoan their lot, and the Corinthian spirit – largely absent from the men's game in – is alive and well among them.

"I don't think about the money," explains Jo Traynor, 25, a tall, powerful central defender who has been using her skills as a translator to act as team spokeswoman for the Spanish media which are lapping up the presence of their visitors from the illustrious Liverpool FC. "In my eyes, it is a completely different thing to the men's game. I don't play women's football because I want to drive a Lamborghini or live in a great big house. I do it because I love it."

They have also had to overcome negative personal perceptions and years of second-class football status to achieve their goal. Like most of the team, Miss Traynor had to stop playing alongside the boys at the age of 11 even though school friends recall how she used to "run rings" around her male counterparts during lunchtime kick-abouts. Football came naturally to her: inspired by brothers and footie-mad parents to kick a ball in a city where the game has been elevated to religious status, she worked her way up through the ranks before graduating to the elite adult game.

"People know me and respect what I do," says Miss Traynor. "But there is still this stereotype and it is not a very positive one. They think women players are all very masculine and lager louts but it isn't like that at this level. It is up to our generation to turn that image around."

From next spring, women's football and the newly created summer Super League will at last begin to receive the television attention which its supporters have long craved. A deal with the broadcaster ESPN means that matches will be shown live and a weekly magazine programme – described as a cross between Top Gear and Match of the Day – is designed to build a new fan base among young girls.

Disciplined and focused, the Liverpool Ladies see themselves as positive role models for teenagers who are turning away from sport in growing numbers. Centre forward Cheryl "Fozzie" Foster, 29, a PE teacher from Chester, trains four times a week with the team and was last season's top scorer for Liverpool with 22 goals – although she was repeatedly denied another goal on Saturday by Atletico's goalkeeper.

"I am not bitter or angry about the way I have been treated, I am proud of what I have achieved," she says. "It has been tough but I have got through it and I am still playing. I always said I would retire at 30 but it is my birthday next month and I have changed my mind."

The women, the youngest of whom is just 17, have clearly enjoyed being feted by their hosts, dining in the city's famous Meson Txistu restaurant where photographs of Fabio Capello and Fernando Torres grace the wall. All agree that in order to scale the heights of their sport, they missed out on the normal adolescence enjoyed by their peers: when their non-footballing friends went out partying, they stayed in to prepare for matches.

"At times you do struggle with a few things no matter how successful you are," adds Miss Foster. "It is tough when you have to go training and you have been at work for 12 hours. But playing in front of 20,000 people at an international against Germany, you get a snippet of what it must be like to be a male footballer. "

The two-track approach to the game has left many of today's women players at a disadvantage, argues medical student Caroline Charlton, 20, who plays in defence. "The thing that frustrates me is when men say you are never going to be any good, but we have never had the opportunity to play five or six times a week like they have," she says.

Another issue is that their career prime coincides with the time many women are starting to think about having children. "I hope to have a family and at my age, a lot of the girls are thinking about having children too. There are some who have had babies and come back but it is very hard," says Jo Traynor.

But she urges girls to get involved. "I have travelled all over the world. The rewards are fantastic: the more you put in, the more you get out."