The FIFA Women’s World Cup in France this year is being hailed as a watershed moment for women’s football in England.
Domestically, the women’s game has been growing steadily over the past few years, aided by the Football Association’s (FA) energetic attempts to push it into the mainstream.
Last September saw the relaunch of the Women’s Super League (WSL), with all eleven teams in the top tier of women’s football now offering their players full-time, professional contracts, seeing the best earning £35,000 ($45,000/€40,000) a year. The second tier also underwent a rebrand and is now known as the FA Women’s Championship.
Teams were only accepted into the Championship if they met criteria that a ensured a certain level of professionalism, including the provision of a minimum of eight hours weekly contact time for their semi-professional players.
These changes aimed to make women’s football a plausible career pathway for girls across the country and the subsequent money invested into the game has seen coverage and attendance figures increase.
Women’s football is yet to fully hit the public mainstream in England, however, with hopes that this summer’s World Cup may act as the final boost. England are currently fourth in the FIFA World Rankings and are, if not outright favourites for the tournament, likely to make the quarter-finals at least.
A long run in the competition could recreate the fervent interest that accompanied the men’s journey to the World Cup semi-finals in Russia last July and propel women’s football into the consciousness of every sports fan in the country.
A recent incident in the Championship has highlighted the current fragility of the women’s game, suggesting that the FA are pushing women’s football onto the main stage without ensuring that some of the most basic provisions for players are covered.
Last Sunday, Charlton Athletic kicked off against Manchester United in front of a home crowd at The Oakwood but the game was suspended in the eleventh minute after Charlton defender Charlotte Kerr was seriously injured.
Kerr was treated with oxygen provided by the Manchester United medical team as Charlton did not have any on site, something which contravened FA requirements for WSL and Championship teams. Following treatment, the referee abandoned the game as there was not enough oxygen left to carry on safely.
Kerr was released from hospital the next day with badly bruised ribs and sternum but if the Manchester United medical team did not have its own oxygen the incident could have been a lot worse.
It has since emerged that Charlton have not had oxygen on site since the season started in September, meaning nine games have been hosted at The Oakwood without the required medical equipment. Charlton will be reprimanded for this with a £500 ($644/€570) fine, as per the FA’s rules regarding the provision of medical assistance, but the FA must take some degree of responsibility for the incident.
It is worrying that Charlton’s infringement of the rules had only become clear after a player was seriously injured. Why were checks not carried out by the FA at the beginning of the season to ensure that all WSL and Championship teams were complying with their rules?
There have been numerous other occasions recently which suggest the FA are failing to ensure that basic requirements are being offered to protect female players, despite their claim that the sport is becoming more professional.
Kerr’s ambulance took 30 minutes to arrive at The Oakwood, similar to the wait for Manchester City’s Pauline Bremer, who broke her leg in a match against Everton in October 2017.
Manchester City complained to the FA at the time, but it was after only the incident at Charlton last week that the organisation said they would consider making ambulances compulsory at women’s matches.
The FA’s decision in 2007 to make ambulances a necessity in the men’s game has been credited with saving the life of former Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba after he collapsed in an FA Cup match against Tottenham Hotspur. The same level of care for players must now be implemented in women’s football.
Female players can also encounter issues once they are injured. It is not compulsory for WSL and Championship teams to provide private medical insurance for their players, meaning that they may have to pay for treatment themselves or face a lengthy wait with the National Health Service (NHS), Britain’s free healthcare system.
Three players from London Bees, a Championship side, have had to resort to creating a Crowdfunding page to raise £15,000 ($19,000/€17,000) for their anterior cruciate ligament constructive surgeries. With the club unable to pay for the required medical care, the players are currently on an NHS waiting list, affecting both their personal and professional lives.
Another issue is the standard of officiating in the women’s game, which is often called into question.
England manager Phil Neville said he was concerned at the standard of refereeing following his team’s controversial draw with Australia in October, when England were denied two penalties and had a goal wrongly disallowed.
It goes without saying that poor refereeing is a direct risk to the safety of players. This was emphasised in October when Chelsea’s Drew Spence only received a yellow card for a heavy tackle on Arsenal’s Kim Little, breaking her leg and putting her out of action for ten weeks.
England and Lyon right-back Lucy Bronze responded to this incident by criticising the standard of officiating in women’s football.
“Real shame for Kim, Arsenal and the league. Fans come to watch players like her play. But REPEATEDLY let down by the standard of officiating (Not all officiating, may I add). But there’s a real underlying problem somewhere. My yearly rant,” she tweeted.
Aside from the obvious risk to players’ safety, these incidents damage the credibility of the women’s game.
Funding has gone into creating a new professional and semi-professional league, but has seemingly not stretched far enough to ensure that this professionalism reaches all aspects of the game.
It is hard for the FA to claim that women's football is ready for the big stage when a second-tier match is called off due to a lack of adequate medical supplies, players are forced to create Crowdfunding pages to pay for surgery, and referees do not properly discipline leg-breaking tackles.
There are fundamental discrepancies between the level the FA are pitching women's football at and important aspects of the game such as medical care and officiating.
If the FA really wants women’s football to achieve the credibility needed to reach the mainstream, it must fix the numerous underlying issues currently ongoing in the game, rather than rely on World Cup success.