The Football Association hopes that moves towards professionalisation could help women's football become the second-biggest team participation sport in Britain, after the men's game.
Launching the new five-year plan for women's football, called "Game Changer", the FA general secretary, Alex Horne, said that having full-time professional women footballers within five years was a "great aspiration". The FA Women's Super League, which is being expanded to a second tier for 2014, is currently semi-professional.
"I would like to see it – shamelessly – the second-largest participation sport after men's football in the country," Horne said at Wembley yesterday. "We need to focus on everything, but it's a virtuous circle. Successful Women's Super League leads to successful ambassadors and role models, leads to successful development team, leads to successful England senior team and the buzz ... will generate the broader participation base."
Steph Houghton, who plays for Arsenal Ladies and England, and represented Britain in the Olympic Games, said professionalisation would make the biggest change to women's football. "That is a massive part," said the 24-year-old. "We're semi-pro now. To be able to train every day – you learn more and get better, and we've already had the benefits of that."
The England manager, Hope Powell, said that the semi-professional status held back the national team. "The problem is that if they're not training every day in clubs, when they come to an England environment we then have to speed up that process," she said. "If they had that every day in their clubs, they'd come with that and we could just top up, and focus more on strategic elements of the game."
Professional football is expensive, though, and Horne urged clubs to follow the funding example of Arsenal, though the Ladies are still only a semi-professional side. "It probably needs investment from a men's club," he said. "Arsenal stand out for me as a club who take women's football very seriously for many years, spending £500,000 every year on them.
"It is very difficult to sit here and say that every one of the 92 league clubs must have satellite women's clubs and must invest so much in them. That clearly won't work, financially. It would detract from the women's game.
"What I hope is that there are many clubs out there who have seen ... investment in semi-professional women's teams is actually a really good extension to their own ideals and strategy."
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