From A Game for Rough Girls
to A Beautiful Game
Dusting the Mirror of Women’s Football
When the 2007 World Cup was allocated to PR China, the country which had staged the first official competition for female players in 1991, the president of the international governing body of football, Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), Joseph ‘Sepp’ Blatter, remarked that women’s football was ‘returning to its roots’.1 The Asian philosophy of revisiting, of continually ‘dusting the mirror’, informed this investigation into the international status of women’s football. While the transnational themes are mainly new, it has also been an opportunity to review some ideas previously discussed in A Game for Rough Girls, particularly with regard to the female game’s sometimes controversial image. Reappraising the topic with a broader focus, the study develops the thesis of women’s involvement as fundamental to the history of association football at the same time as acknowledging localized and globalized tensions in its progress. If China is officially recognized by FIFA as the ‘cradle’ of football, then it seems appropriate perhaps that it should stage the fifth competition, when the Women’s World Cup, as one commentator put it, ‘comes home’.2 This periodization is to be resisted. When women players of the late nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth took to the football fields in each of the four case study countries covered here (the United States, PR China, England, Australia), they were self-consciously challenging the paradigm of the association code as a ‘manly’ game. Roughly between the 1890s and the mid-1920s, the strategy was to lobby and seek space in the social milieu; then, until the late 1950s, it became to protest exclusion of various kinds, after which time women’s associations formed and the sports authorities challenged before a process of merger and integration in the 1990s. The complex and changing context of football around the world across these phases also textures the history which narrow assumptions of the modern nature of women’s interest obscure. Not least, the fragmented nature of the source material on which the story depends indicates that women’s football has had, in national and international terms, a pretty rootless existence. Given the longer view, supposedly world-wide tournaments organized by sporting associations of the 1990s can be seen each as more a departure than a homecoming.
The diffusion of association football as part of a British mercantile colonial legacy is disputably a process whereby the simplicity of the game enabled the format to remain largely the same, while different cultural and social meanings were given to it.