"The increasing popularity of women’s football worldwide is a positive indicator given the power of this sport to empower girls and women in their communities.
That is why strengthening women football in Asia is one of the key pillars of my program as FIFA Vice President.”

HRH Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein

A brief history of women’s football until 1991

By Dr. Barbara Cox MBE

Folk football, a generic term given to a game from which emerged all the various codes of football, has existed since ancient times. Although primarily played by men, a Han Dynasty fresco from second century AD shows two women kicking a leather ball together and, in medieval Britain, annual matches took place between married and single women, particularly on Shrove Tuesdays. It has been long argued that England, by fashioning folk games and rural customs into sports characterised by standard rules, bureaucracy and record-keeping, fostered the rise of modern football. By the 1880s, large numbers of football clubs had sprung up throughout England. Perhaps influenced by all these opportunities for men to play football, Nettie Honeyball in 1894, founded what is believed to be the first ‘proper’ women’s team in the world – the British Ladies Football Club. These professional players, dressed in knickerbockers, blouses, caps and boots, played their first match in London in March 1895 in front of a large crowd. They went on to tour England and Scotland playing something like 19 or 20 matches before folding the following year.

Twenty years would elapse before women’s football re-emerged in the period during and after WWI. Women formed clubs, trained and played football in many countries around the world. Numerous football teams sprang up throughout England but none more famous than the Dick, Kerr Ladies from Preston who attracted crowds of over 50,000 to watch their matches and who were responsible for raising somewhere in the region of £150,000 pounds for war time charitable activities.

Apart from this ‘golden’ period of women’s football, for almost two-thirds of the 1900s, ruling football organisations banned women from playing the game, limited their use of football fields and forbade young girls to play in teams alongside boys. Naturally some women persisted in challenging these rulings and continued to play but their memories and experiences are mostly hidden from the ‘official eyes’ of history.

By the mid 1960s, a series of interrelated global factors such as equal rights legislation, increased media coverage of women’s sport, the health and fitness movement and the women’s rights movements, fostered an environment conducive for female sport participation. Football was one such sport which attracted females in large numbers. Two ‘unofficial’ women’s World Cups were held first in Italy (organised and financed by the Federation of Independent European Female Football in 1970) and the second in Mexico in 1971. An estimated 100,000 people attended the final between Denmark (3) and Mexico (0). In Hong Kong, four years later, and also in front of enthusiastic spectators, the Asian Ladies Football Confederation (ALFC) organised the first Asian Cup. Seven countries competed: New Zealand emerged the winner, beating Thailand 3-1.

The ALFC continued to promote football for women. Under their auspices, the Chinese-Taipei Football Association initiated World Women’s Invitational Football Tournaments which were held every three years, starting in 1978 and finishing in 1987. For many of the pioneering female footballers, attending these tournaments in Taiwan was the highlight of their footballing careers. Teams came from all around the world. Some were national teams with a formal governing organisation and player selection processes. Others, reflecting the lack of organisation and responsibility for women’s football in their respective countries, were club teams who had raised their own airfares to travel to the tournament. The opening ceremonies were quite spectacular, particularly the one in 1984. Costing over 11 million New Taiwan dollars to stage, 6,300 male and female performers of all ages performed military and gymnastic drills, fan and dragon dances before a captive audience of 28,000. Perhaps from a player’s perspective, the most amazing sight was to see thousands of children holding up different coloured cards across one side of the stadium and who, on a set signal, would send appropriate messages to the team marching in.

It was the success of all these tournaments, and the subsequent opportunities to network amongst officials from different countries, that led administrators of women’s football to pressure FIFA executive members to host a Women’s World Cup. In 1986, members of the Oceania Women’s Football Confederation gave a list of proposals to Charlie Dempsey and asked that he, in his role as a FIFA Executive member, present them to the forthcoming FIFA Congress in Mexico. However, perhaps it was the shock of hearing Norwegian Ellen Wille address Congress, the first woman to do so, that helped change the mindsets of those attending. While her proposal that FIFA organise a Women’s World Cup and include women’ football as an Olympic sport was noted and well-received, it took a pilot World Cup in Xian, China in 1988 and much further discussion before the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup finally took place in Guangzhou, China in 1991.

The historical emergences and disappearances of women’s football have often coincided with significant changes in society and, for many women, the ‘right’ to play football is not one that can be taken for granted. However, since the 1970s, the majority of ruling associations have made considerable effort to actively promote football for women and girls. This change in mindset has culminated in huge increases in the numbers of women and girls playing football today throughout the world.


By Michele Cox

In comparison to its stuttered and obstacle filled beginnings, women’s football is today one of the fastest growing sports on the planet, and certainly the fastest growing sector of football. The number of registered female players across the world alone has shown an impressive 32% increase from 22 million in 2000 to 29 million in 2011. This means that women and girls now account for at least 12% of all players globally, and this figure is only expected to increase as more female footballers in more countries are drawn into the game through its rapidly increasing profile.

While women’s football in the early modern era was largely the domain of key driving nations such as China, USA, Germany and the Scandanavian countries, we now see an expansion of the sport into every corner of the world. This we see reflected in the growth in teams participating in international matches from 3 in 1971 (when there were 2 matches in total) to 141 in 2010 when a total of 512 international matches took place. In 2010, a further 29 national women’s teams were listed on the provisional FIFA rankings but were not active during this particular year.

The women’s game is therefore blossoming globally – and not just on the field. The latest FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany, 2011 showed just how far the game has progressed in terms of popularity as a spectator sport and key contributor to the positive image and financial well-being of football in general. The event was the first World Cup outside of the men’s FIFA World Cup to make a profit with a gross surplus of €10.6 million. Key contributors to this were €23 million generated from partnerships with 6 national supporters and €25 million in sales from a total of 784,000 match tickets – evidence that women’s football is becoming a very attractive business proposition.

The media coverage of the FIFA Women’s World Cup was equally impressive. 2557 media from all over the world were accredited for the event, and matches were broadcast to over 200 territories, with all 32 games being shown live in the host country. In Germany alone, the match resulted in the shock exit of the host team against eventual champions and tournament sweethearts Japan that drew an average audience of 17 million – a figure unbelievably higher than the German men’s contest against Serbia in South Africa the previous year. Most impressive of all however, was that the edge-of-your-seat final between Japan and USA became the most tweeted event in the five-year history of Twitter! Tweeting is not the only record set by women’s football. In 1999, over 92,000 fans flocked to Pasadena’s Rosebowl to watch another nail-biting victory by the hosts USA over China, whose legendary player Sun Wen went on to win the Golden Ball – a feat later emulated in 2012 by Asian compatriat, Japanese captain Homare Sawa. The average crowds at the 1999 event and those thereafter in the US again (2003), China (2007) were around 40,000. The 2011 edition in Germany registered a lower average crowd of 27,000 due to the smaller stadium capacity, but demonstrated again that the women’s game at elite level is a force to be reckoned with.

Asia have always been a driving force and amongst the leaders of the women’s game. China was not only the host of the inaugural 1991 World Cup and it’s fifth edition in 2007, but always a strong title contender until their lack of qualification for Germany. The Japanese team, as current Women’s World Champions, are now the golden girls of Asia but with the strong performances of Korea DPR (winners of the U-17 and U-20 FIFA Women’s World Cup Winners in 2008 and 2006 respectively), South Korea (winners of the U-17 Women’s World Cup 2010) and current AFC Women’s Asian Cup holders, Australia , the competition in this burgeoning region is only going to get tougher.


It is clear that the women’s game has a healthy future and nowhere more so than in Asia where the achievements of the national teams are leading the way for not only women’s football but for the whole Asian football family. But there are still issues that need to be overcome to allow the more beautiful game to reach its maximum potential. Below are some issues and thoughts on what still needs to be addressed in the women’s game in order for it to flourish, in particular in Asia:

What are the key challenges that need to be overcome:

- Differences of religion and culture
- Lack of awareness of benefits of women’s football (internal and external)
- Lack of opportunities to play (especially at grassroots level)
- Lack of resource (financial, infrastructure and human)

What is needed to develop the women’s game:

- Better planning
- Increased participation at all levels and in all sectors of the game
- More involvement of women in decision making
- More qualified women's coaches, instructors, and referees
- More quality competitions including youth leagues
- Improved player development in various stages
- Increased involvement of stakeholders
- Increased investment
- Increased access to good infrastructure
- Better promotion of the game (including broadcasting)
- Increased access to top quality information