How post-war sexism curbed the progression of women’s football

by Charlie Carmichael | @CHARLIEJC93

In an alternate reality, many parallel universes away, Carli Lloyd is sporting a grin wider than a Cheshire cat. The Eiffel Tower acts as her imperious backdrop as she stands, hands clenched, holding a Paris Saint-Germain jersey. The United States international has just secured her dream move to the French club for a world record €200 million fee.

As photographers clamour for a shot of Lloyd amidst the Parisian sunset, that will inevitably adorn tomorrow’s back pages, journalists’ frantically scribble down the opening lines to their adjoining columns. Some opt for rumours that money was the sole motivator behind Lloyd’s move. Others focus on the Qatari owners of PSG and their political agenda, citing positive media attention towards the 2022 World Cup host nation as being the fuel that powered the transfer.     

Notwithstanding media cynicism, a young girl named Eloa becomes one of the first in Brazil to get her hands on a replica Lloyd shirt. She’s her second favourite player, behind Marta of course, whose face is portrayed via a wonderful mosaic that sits proudly across the walls of Jacarezinho – Rio de Janeiro’s second biggest favela – and watches over Eloa and her friends every night as they light up its intersecting streets with impromptu kickabouts.

This scenario may seem worlds away from reality but back in 1918 it appeared a very viable future. World War I had just drawn to its bitter, bloody conclusion and British men posted abroad were returning home. During their absence, women had sought to keep the country’s economy running, manning munition factories and raising money for wounded soldiers.

One such source of philanthropic income came in the form of organised sport. With the men trading football pitches for the battlefield, women’s teams were formed, matches were organised, and tickets were sold to the masses back home as fundraising events.

What started out as an act of defiant support quickly gathered pace and soon the women’s game was attracting crowds in the tens of thousands. For all the new-found success, though, one team was standing tall amongst the rest.

Dick Kerr Ladies were a factory side formed in Preston in 1917. Boasting some of the finest talents of a generation, their first victory at Deepdale raised £600 – the equivalent to around £50,000 today. They would later tour France in 1920, travelling over 2000 miles and competing in front of 62,000 spectators, before returning home to contest the FA Cup final against St. Helens at Goodison Park amid 53,000 onlookers.

The sport’s popularity was rife, and it looked destined to dovetail with the men’s game en route to the glitz and glamor of the Premier League era we know today. Unfortunately, sexism was about to rear its ugly head and devastate the development of women’s football, the effects of which are still being felt to this day.

Prior to the war, the realms of football had always been male domain. Women were simply seen as too fragile to compete in such a brutish environment, their petite frames not designed for the physical rigours of sporting competition. The FA thereby decided that women had no place in what had always been a man’s game, and in 1921, banned them from competing in men’s affiliated grounds.

The extent to which this decision has set-back the women’s game cannot be overstated. They lost their facilities, funding, media attention and popularity. More significantly though, was the common societal notion that football – and sport in general – wasn’t for women. A notion that even to this day can sadly sometimes still feel like the hegemonic norm.

Despite this, Dick Kerr Ladies continued to fly in the face of adversity. In 1937, they played Edinburgh City Girls in the Championship of Great Britain and the World, winning 5-1. Star striker Lily Parr netted that day as she cemented herself as one of the greatest players in English history, scoring more than 1,000 goals over a 31-year career. However, with the men’s game firmly back on the rise, Parr and her teammates were swiftly shoved out of the limelight.

Years passed and women’s football was once again scoffed at. Finding an opportunity to play was hard enough, let alone enjoying any success on the field. Yet from the shadows of a broken game, came the roaring passion of one women, hell-bent on forging a career in the sport she loved. Her name was Rose Reilly.  

Born in Kilmarnock, Scotland, Reilly had wanted to be a footballer from the moment she could walk. “I wanted a ball with all my passion, but got a doll at Christmas, and in those days that was the only time you got something.” Reilly told The Guardian.

“I was so devastated I went out and swapped it for a ball. From the age of four, that ball went everywhere with me. I slept with it. If I went down the street for messages for my mum, I played keepie-uppie on the way there – and on the way back. Sometimes there would be a wee hill or stairs, but on I went.”

Passion led Reilly to local side, Stewarton Thistle. Her first barrier to overcome was that Stewarton was an all-boys side, but coach John Roy had seen enough to be convinced of Reilly’s talents. At nine years old, Reilly asked the barber for a short back-and-sides and made sure she arrived for matches already fully kitted out, as to not attract suspicion in the dressing room.

Playing under the alias ‘Ross’, Reilly took her first steps into the footballing world and never looked back. After interest in her signature from Celtic scouts never materialised for obvious reasons, she eventually joined Stewarton’s newly-formed Thistle Ladies, and helped them to the maiden Scottish Cup title in 1971.

Two years later, the SFA – after over 50 years of oppression – finally revoked their ruling on women playing in men’s grounds. For Reilly, it was too little, too late. Vocal criticism of the governing body earned her a lifetime ban from the national side. Angered by injustice, she headed to Continental Europe in search of her dream career.

The first stop was Reims where she helped the northern French city to the league title in 1973 before moving to Italian behemoths, A.C Milan. It is in Italy where Reilly would spend the next 27 years of her life, carving out a reputation as a phenomenally gifted player.

After refusing an arranged marriage to ensure citizenship, she was duly adopted by the country and in 1984, traded her tartan stripes for Azzurri blue to represent Italy at the Mundialito (a precursor tournament to the women’s World Cup). In a fairytale ending befitting of her improbable rise to stardom, Reilly would score past West Germany in the final to seal an historic 3-1 victory and claim the championship.

The goal should have written her into footballing folklore, placing Reilly in the same illustrious company as Pelé, Maradona, Müller and all the other World Cup greats that have graced the game’s grandest stage. Alas, while the aforementioned bask in the glory of yesteryear triumphs, the name Rose Reilly is still an unfamiliar one to many in the football world, thanks to the plagued history of the women’s game.

Nowadays, for every step forward women’s football takes, the men’s seems to take ten. The great chasm of disparity between the two, perpetuated by the sport itself, shows little sign of changing. And yet, were it not for an historic act of sexism, it could have all been so different.

Who knows, if The FA’s masculinity hadn’t felt so threatened back in 1921, we may have been on the terraces in Russia this summer, berating Jan Vertonghen as he contested a header against Spurs teammate Harry Kane. As the ball is cleared with consummate ease for the umpteenth time, England fans rise from their seats in unison, and resort to the now well-versed riposte: “You’re just a shit Steph Houghton.”