But it wasn’t always men’s football which drew the big crowds. In the 1920s, women’s matches regularly attracted bigger crowds than the men’s game and there were around 150 women’s teams in the UK.
On Boxing Day 1921, a match between Dick Kerr’s Ladies team and St Alban’s Ladies attracted almost 70,000 spectators. (Dick Kerr’s Ladies won 4-0.)
Why was women’s football so popular?
There had been attempts to popularise the game with women in the late 19th century, but it was until 1914 that it began to catch on.
Society had changed radically during the First World War and women were called on to take on roles formerly occupied by men. Women who worked in munitions factories began to play football in their lunch breaks, and so the sport’s popularity grew.
Teams boosted morale and soon began to compete against other factories. Their games had mass appeal and soon drew crowds of thousands.
The FA bans women’s football in 1921
So what went wrong? It seems that the Football Association (FA) wasn’t keen on the women’s game and took steps to stop their matches.
In December 1921, they banned clubs from allowing women to play at their grounds and stopped the sport in its tracks. The FA also banned its members from refereeing women’s matches.
Shockingly, this ban remained in place until 1971!
Overturning the FA ban on women’s football
It wasn’t until the end of the 1960s that the tide began to turn. Inspired by the England men’s World Cup win in 1966, more women wanted to take up football. The Women’s Football Association (WFA) was formed in 1969 and the first Women’s FA Cup final soon followed.
But it wasn’t until 1997 that the first initiative to grow the women’s game was announced by the FA and Hope Powell was appointed as the Women’s National Coach.
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How successful are female footballers today?
Women’s football becoming more popular and things are definitely looking up. According to the FA, football is now the biggest women’s sport in the UK with around 147,000 players last season. When records began in 1993, that number was just 10,000.
The British women’s team did well at the 2012 Olympics and came fourth, but were unable to compete in the Rio Olympics in 2016.
At this year’s SSE Women’s FA Cup Final a crowd of 45,423 people watched Chelsea beat Arsenal 3-1 – and the numbers keep growing every year. Excitingly, the match was also broadcast on BBC One at primetime for the first time.
While there’s still a long way to go, the England Women’s team has been very successful internationally and came third in the 2015 World Cup. Who knows – maybe football could be coming home in 2019?
Photography by Getty Images.