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The state of women’s football is improving but it still has a long way to go

Women’s football has always lived in the shadow of men’s football.  Although the women’s game in England has existed in a professional capacity since 1997, women were banned from playing at club level until the 1960s. Since the creation of elite competitions such as the Women’s Premier League and Women’s Super League, the sport has improved vastly.

However, disparities still exist in some considerable measure, as women’s football struggles to reach the relative parity seen in other sports such as tennis or athletics. Spoughts’ Joe Gleave sat down with a professional player in the women’s game to discuss some of the issues and get an insight into how the game differs, through her own career.

Chloe Baker, is a goalkeeper who has played for Crystal Palace and Ebbsfleet. When she joined Palace in 2012, Baker was signed after playing in a trial day, which she found out about by searching on the internet. Her route to the club highlights one major difference from men’s football, where boys are scouted very early in their development rather than signed at open trials.

“I found it on Google with the dates, emailed them a kind of CV with the clubs I’d played for before and they replied and told me the times for the trial,” said the 19-year-old from Charlton, South London.

Baker in action for Gillingham
Baker in action for Gillingham

Speaking in an interview about her footballing experiences so far, she gave her opinion on some of the disparities that are present in the women’s game today.

“I don’t think it’s appreciated that much, people don’t care. You can just tell that from popularity and salaries.

“Most women have to get second jobs. In England only four players per team can be paid over £20,000,” she said, speaking about the top tier of women’s football in the UK, the Women’s Super League.

Several women in the current England squad have part-time jobs, such as Eniola Aluko who has trained as a lawyer and Rachel Williams who is a plasterer. Payment structures have changed slightly in recent times however, and regular England internationals can also receive up to £20,000 a year from central contracts similar to those used for the England Cricket Team.

Aluko (right) playing for England
Aluko (right) playing for England

Baker said that if possible, women are better to play in the USA, something which Aluko did between 2009 and 2011.

“Really it’s better to go abroad to somewhere like the USA if you want to make a proper living out of playing football. You can get scholarships to play there because playing women’s football in the States is a big deal.”

One of Baker’s heroes in the game is an American soccer personality who is as much a celebrity as a footballer in the United States, due to the increased popularity of the feminine side of the sport across the pond. Hope Solo, the USA women’s national team goalkeeper, is someone Baker has looked up to for many years. But the controversy surrounding Solo this summer after she allegedly beat her boyfriend and her sister has tarnished her reputation, so much so that she was last week suspended from the national team for a month.

USA goalkeeper Hope Solo
USA goalkeeper Hope Solo

“When I look at her all I can say is just ‘wow.’ She’s still a great goalkeeper, but she’s also a role model in that respect. Sportsmen and women should realise that there are kids out there who want to emulate them and they need to set a better example. I think it’s important to separate private life from professional though.

Women’s football in the USA attracts much higher crowds at larger stadiums than in the UK, with the England women’s team only having made their first appearance at Wembley on 23 November against Germany, seven years after the stadium opened. This was a big step for women’s football in the UK, where funding and facilities have not always been readily available, and the crowd of 45,000 that the Three Lionesses attracted shows that interest is growing significantly, even if it is still some way off equalling the popularity in the United States where the 1999 Women’s World Cup final sold out a 90,000 capacity stadium.

“When I was younger girls would get dodgy kick off times though and we wouldn’t be given as much money for kits and equipment. The adult game isn’t really like that but there are still issues. The Super League doesn’t really get any television coverage because of the popularity of the men’s game and matches are usually played at much smaller grounds.”

The World Cup will be played on artificial pitches
The World Cup will be played on artificial pitches

One idea that has been mooted to give women’s football more media coverage, is to move the season to take place in the summer, when most men’s leagues are on holiday. However even when women’s football is given a suitable platform, inequalities still seem apparent. Baker drew my attention to the debate around the 2015 World Cup in Canada.

“A big controversy at the moment is that the World Cup isn’t going be played on real grass pitches and that might be down to money. Even if it’s down to the temperature it’s still unfair because there would be outcry if that happened in the men’s game.”

Although clear disparities exist between the men’s and women’s forms of the game, Baker does not see the women’s game as lacking in quality.

“I don’t think it’s any worse than men’s football but it’s a different style. It’s slightly different, but not so much that it’s a different game. I feel like it’s the difference between a so-called man’s press-up and a woman’s press-up. I think once people appreciate the game for what it is and stop comparing women to Wayne Rooney then it will be better.”

Other sports such as tennis do not suffer from such a gulf in popularity between the genders, but Baker doubts if women’s football could ever reach the heights of women’s tennis.

“It is getting better and I think it will continue to improve but I just think there will always be the idea that football is a man’s game. I’d look forward to a time when the two are equal but I think football will always be dominated by men, not just in the players but also way more men watch football than women and they tend to only watch men’s football. I watch both versions of the game and I don’t see why men couldn’t enjoy women’s football too.”