A game for girls?
© FIFA.com

Heather Cowan is standing on the touchlines of a football pitch - the official ground of the Birmingham County FA. Behind the 27-year-old, the motorway roars towards London; epic lines of electricity pylons stretch into the distance. It's a macho urban scene, not, perhaps, the first place you'd expect to find an eager and committed young woman.

But that in itself tells a story. As Heather explains: "When I was 11 years old, I watched boys playing football in my school and I got jealous. I wanted to join in and I went to my teacher and asked: 'Can I play footie?'"

Heather grimaces. And her expression says it all. She felt like Oliver Twist saying 'Please Sir, Can I have some more?'

"So the teacher looked at me and replied: 'Well, all right, if you can get a team of 11 girls together, you can play like the boys.' He reckoned we wouldn't be able to do that. But you know what - my friends and me, we did it! We got a team. And then the teacher had to help us."

Heather walks us around the goal. She warns us not to tread on the turf: "It's hallowed ground!". Then she explains how her teachers remained sceptical.

"They thought we would get bored after two or three weeks, but we didn't. We stuck at it. We became pretty good; in fact our main problem was finding other teams to play. There weren't many other girls' teams, you see."

And there's the rub. Even today it is difficult for women to enter the sometimes very male world of football.

A long history
This is strange from a historical perspective, because women have been kicking balls around just as long as the game has existed. Evidence shows that an archaic version of football was played by women during China's Han Dynasty: in the second century AD.

More recently, the modern game of football, devised and codified in Great Britain, also saw an early involvement from women. Lothian in Scotland had an annual female football competition in the 1790s. In the Victorian era, Britain's football authorities introduced rules to restrain violence on the pitch. This made it more acceptable for women to participate, which they did with enthusiasm, even if they were hampered by very long skirts.

The first proper women's football team in the world was founded by the splendidly-named Nettie Honeyball , in England, in 1894 . It was called the British Ladies Football Club . Nettie Honeyball told the Daily Graphic at the time: "I founded the association... with the fixed resolve of proving to the world that women are not the 'ornamental and useless' creatures men have pictured."

It was a promising inception for women's football in the very home of the game. And some early women's matches - at Goodison Park, for instance - attracted thousands of fans. But women's football never really took off in the UK. Indeed, in 1921 the English FA actually banned the feminine version of the game on league pitches. Their reasoning was that the women's game was 'distasteful'. A similar diktat was handed down by Scottish authorities.

The result of this discrimination is that, even today, whilst women's football in Britain is developing fast, it is still lagging behind many other countries. Though it is catching up.

Cowan elucidates. "Now I am a development officer for women's football in Birmingham. My job is to encourage the female game, to create centres of female football excellence. I've been involved for five years, and now there are 140,000 girls and women registered playing in Britain - and that doesn't include girls having a kickabout. We have more women playing football now than there are women playing netball, tennis, hockey, you name it. Football is now the number one women's sport in the UK!"

Progress and areas for improvement
This sounds like success. As Heather says, the women's sport has "grown and grown", with the backing of the FA. But still she sees problems: "We need a pyramid structure. TV coverage is vital, and we want to see a women's professional league. When I open a page in tabloid newspaper, I'd like to find coverage of women's football - every day. Right now we are way behind America. Why are they more advanced? Maybe because there isn't that historical perception over there - that football is a man's game; that football is somehow 'unfeminine.'"

This 'femininity' issue is a problem cited by Fiona Nicholls, a PE teacher in a nearby school. "Girls approach football differently to boys. They have different needs. Girls take longer to get changed, they need more time to get prepared. Some of them don't want to get sweaty and look butch. And yet they can get just as much out of it as guys. They learn leadership and rules, they get exercise, they learn team skills. It develops their potential across the board."

Fiona Nicholls knows what she's talking about. In recent years she has successfully mentored a talented young female player in Castle Bromwich in Birmingham, 17-year-old Laura Schmid.

As she coaches some girls in an evening kick-about, Laura takes up her own story: "A few years ago, I was, to be honest, a little git. I was missing lessons, and bunking off school. At the same time I have always been into football. I played for the under 10s at my primary school, and the under 14s at secondary level - you name it I played it." Laura turns, and applauds a fine header from one of her junior charges.

"But then Fiona Nicholls told me: 'Laura if you don't start working harder at school, then we won't let you play'. That was a real shock. All I wanted to do was play football - so then I started working at my lessons with some of the same enthusiasm I had for football. And then I started doing better at school. I'd realised that if I applied myself to life with the same commitment I gave the game, then I could get similar results. That was great. So, yes, football really helped me, and I don't just mean my tackling."

Not better, just different
All of this good news leaves just one significant question. Is women's football as good as men's? Some say it isn't: some think that, no matter how involved the female players are, they can't match the guys.

For a keen opinion on this we need to travel a few miles to the East. Jo Welford is a Research Associate for the Institute of Youth Sport. She is HQ'd at Loughborough University. In a study conducted with a Loughborough colleague, into female participation in football, Jo has discovered that one of the main problems is this very idea: that football is only good if played by boys; and that girls are really meant to be spectators, on the sidelines, giggling at the lads. From sports teachers who are sarcastic about the female game to the domination of boys in the playground, Jo believes that women have a lot more hurdles to jump, to get into serious football. Therefore, if they make it - they are arguably outperforming the men.

She adds: "Anyway, men's football really isn't 'better' than women's football. It's just different. Men have more power and physical presence so they play the ball higher, while women pass along the ground. But there is a particular grace to women's football which you don't see in the male game. Look at the similar differences between male and female tennis.

"Finally," she laughs, "There is no diving in women's football!"

Nettie Honeyball would surely be very proud.