At 5.30pm yesterday, a new era began for women’s football with the launch of the FA Women’s Super League (WSL), with Chelsea and Arsenal kicking off proceedings at Tooting and Mitcham’s ground in Surrey. Television cameras brought the game live into the homes of the nation, as Arsenal came out on top 1-0. An interested spectator at the game was none other than England manager Hope Powell.
For the 44-year-old, the launch of the competition holds tremendous significance. Powell can well remember the days when women were banned from playing on any Football Association-owned pitches. That eventually changed in 1993, when the country’s governing body began to acknowledge the female form of the game.
Since then a massive transformation has occurred, culminating in the WSL, in which the FA is investing £3m over the next two years. With the UEFA Women’s Champions League final also being hosted at Fulham's Craven Cottage next month, as well as prominent international friendlies for the national team on home soil, and the FIFA Women's World Cup™ in Germany kicking off in June, is 2011 the year in which the women's game emerges from the shadows and into the public's consciousness?
“I sincerely hope so,” Powell told FIFA.com. “This is an incredibly exciting year for women’s football in the country, but if you were to ask me what our ambitions are, well, we want to be a Germany. We want to be the leading nation in women’s football. Germany inspires us and we want to surpass them in the future.
“This new league and being at the World Cup is a massive bonus for us, as it helps drive participation. The games are going to be on TV and hopefully that will drive more young girls in England to take up the sport. Do we need to be successful? Well, of course it helps. Is it the be-all and end-all? No. It’s all about raising the profile.”
Women's football is already the most popular team sport for English females, and has been since 2002. Powell believes England’s qualification for China 2007 was important in giving the game a further boost, but it also brought a change in mentality from football fans in the country.
“Expectations have certainly grown,” she continued. “People weren’t surprised by our qualification for this World Cup. We came through a very, very tough group, but many didn’t appreciate that. It’s almost easier to prepare for a World Cup when you aren’t expected to achieve, but during the course of the year we’ve hopefully had enough experiences of being in a position of expectation that now we can manage that.
“We had a good training camp in January and we have just built from there. We’ve got the preparation in place, the opposition we want to play, we’ve got a nice timeline going forward, so come the summer we should hit the level of fitness and readiness to go. We should just about be on track.”
One match in which Powell’s team were underdogs was against USA on 2 April. However, goals from Jess Clarke and Rachel Yankey gave England their first victory over their transatlantic rivals for 22 years.
“The guys were delighted,” said the former England midfielder, smiling. “Obviously it’s in the World Cup that it matters, but this result is a good foundation to build on. We have to be pleased. We’ve got another game in May against Sweden, but it was really important to me that we played [against USA]. It was about setting a benchmark and seeing where we are in the world. The important thing was that we proved we can compete.”
Admiring, but avoiding the hosts
Although Powell holds women’s football in Germany in the highest regard, she is at present plotting a path to avoid meeting Die Frauen-Nationalelf in the early knockout stages. To do this, England must top a group which contains Japan, Mexico and New Zealand. And she is leaving no stone unturned in order to achieve her goal.
“A World Cup is not just about on-the-field matters but the off-field preparations as well: knowing who you’re up against, being able to counter all their strengths, and making things work in your favour. Fortunately, the draw has been quite good to us in terms of our knowledge of the teams. We met Japan in 2007 and we played Mexico a few years ago at the Algarve Cup (they drew 2-2 with the Asians, and defeated the Mexicans 5-0 in 2005). New Zealand also gave us a tough game at last year’s Peace Cup in Korea (0-0). So we have got some work to do just to find out how well they have progressed since our last encounters.
“We’re expected to qualify from the group along with Japan. If you believe that Germany are going to come top of Group A, which they probably will do, we need to finish top of our group as well to avoid meeting them in the quarters. If that happens, I think in the semi-finals there’s a possibility we could play Brazil, so we’ve got to make sure that we’ve got those teams scouted. It’s all very exciting. Germany is going to be one of the best World Cups ever, so we’re just making sure that we’re prepared for it.”
Powell will have been pleased to hear that her feelings for German football aren’t unrequited. During the recent tour of the participating countries, LOC President Steffi Jones publically announced: “Hope is a great coach – and she’s done a lot for women’s football. I’ve played several times against her teams and they’ve always provided great opposition.”