The first ever semi-professional women's football league in England has arrived. The FA Women's Super League kicks off tomorrow when Arsenal Ladies – who have dominated the game for over a decade – face Chelsea Ladies in what has been described by David Bernstein, the chairman of the FA, as a "true landmark in the game."
This summer eight clubs from across England will compete home and away in a competition in which the Football Association has invested £3m. The league will run from April until October with a break from 12 May to accommodate the Women's World Cup in Germany where the national team will be competing. Matches will be televised and highlights broadcast on ESPN. They will be taking a similar break next year to avoid competing with the London Olympics and Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine.
One of the motivations behind the league is to improve the quality and distribution of talent. Arsenal have won 12 of the 17 Women's Premier League titles and been runner-up three times since its inception in 1992. They have won both the FA Cup and League Cup 10 times. But Hope Powell, manager of the women's England team for the past 13 years, is confident the WSL will end that domination and ultimately improve the women's game.
"The domestic programme in England wasn't challenging enough," Powell said. "It has always been Arsenal at the top of the tree for the last 10 years. Now we want the standards across the league to be raised. The fact the league is condensed means some good players will now be sitting on the bench and if they want to play they may have to move. This will help the domestic programme which in turn helps the international programme."
The FA is being careful to make sure that the league is a success. Unlike the men's game with huge salaries, the clubs can pay no more than four players an annual salary in excess of £20,000 – in order to spread talent across the sides. This is also to avoid a repeat of the problems faced by the professional women's league in America. The US may currently be the No 1-ranked nation in the world but after setting up in 2005 the league disbanded after two seasons with financial problems. The Women's Professional Soccer League restarted in 2009 and is made up of six fully-professional sides.
Kelly Simmons, the FA's Head of the National Game who is responsible for the development of grass-roots football in the women's game, says the FA is taking a sensible approach. "The professional women's league in America went bust initially because they tried to go too big, too quickly," she said. "We need to make sure we don't make the same mistake and that we've got enough revenues to sustain eight teams before we try and grow.
"One of the great things about going from 12 teams to eight is you're really honing that quality to the very top players. People watching the game for the very first time want the standard to be as strong as it can be. There's a commitment to opening up the league but we need to make sure we're ready."
The new championship explained
What are the teams?
Arsenal, Birmingham City, Bristol Academy FC, Chelsea, Doncaster Rovers Belles, Everton, Lincoln, Liverpool.
Players to watch
* Karen Carney (Forward, Birmingham) The 23-year-old has returned to England from the Chicago Red Stars. She was part of Arsenal's quadruple-winning side in 2006/07 and the winger has 11 goals in 57 appearances for the national side.
* Rachel Yankey (Midfielder, Arsenal) She has made 108 appearances for England making her the most-capped player currently still playing for the national side. The 31-year-old has won the women's Uefa Cup, FA Cup, Premier League and League Cup.
* Sophie Bradley (Defender, Lincoln) Only 21, she has already captained Leeds and after making her senior England debut in August last year has four caps.
* Faye White (Defender, Arsenal) The 6ft Arsenal and England captain has 29 winners' medals at club level, and 11 goals in 88 appearances for her country.
Chelsea v Arsenal: Tomorrow, Tooting & Mitcham FC, 17.30. Tickets Adults £4, Children £1. Television ESPN from 17.00.