As England prepare to take on the world champions USA in an international this S
As England prepare to take on the world champions USA in an international this Saturday, TheFA.com asks whether England could ever emulate the success of American soccer - with eight million players, a victorious national team and the world's only professional women's league, the Americans are world leaders in women's sport.
Few will disagree that the United States of America is currently pioneering women's soccer, not least because of the national team's success in the 1999 World Cup, but also in terms of their tremendously positive attitude towards the game.
This winning combination has initiated the creation of the world's first professional league for women's football, significant commercial sponsorship and the backing of a nation. And as co-favourites to lift the World Cup at this year's event, support for the game is set to expand yet further still.
Aaron Heifetz, Press Officer for the US Women's National Soccer Team, said: "There are many factors that have gone into the success of the women's game in the United States. The support from the US Soccer Federation for the national team has been phenomenal, as has the support of our main sponsor Nike. We have been playing international matches since 1985, which has given players hundreds of matches to develop and learn the international game.
"In addition, the youth club structure in America for girls is massive. There are many competitive places for the girls to play all across the country. Finally, the support for female athletes in the United States is unrivaled in the world. It is considered a positive, and encouraged at almost every level, for girls and women to compete and play sports."
Acknowledging these elements as a roadmap to success, it begs the question of whether England can ever achieve the same status as the USA in women's football? The fact that football replaced netball as the top female sport in England last season, and the overall number of female players jumped a whopping 38 per cent in just one year - with 85,000 girls and women playing in affiliated league and cup competitions during the 2002-3 season - demonstrates growing enthusiasm and participation, which is a strong starting point.
Couple that with increasing support from the men's game, regarded by many as a key catalyst for change, and it becomes clear that the foundations for success are already being built. Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, for example, have pledged player for player sponsorship of their women's teams in the past year, and are offering access to important resources such as coaching and medical staff and facilities.
So what else can be done to convert the growing zeal for the women's game in this country into better development and financing, as well as more positive attitudes and levels of acceptance? Success at the Euro 2005 championships, where England automatically qualify as hosts, and, indeed, World Cup 2007 (England failed to qualify for this year's event after losing in a tough play-off final) would undoubtedly boost the profile of the game and bring it to a wider audience.
Winning either tournament would thrust our national team into the media spotlight - as it did for the USA - and influence potential investors to consider backing a fledgling sport, with the prospect of long-term financial rewards. And the recent success of England's Under 19s in qualifying for this summer's European Championship Finals gives promise to this dream becoming a reality, as the same squad will be ripe for both championships.
Euro 2005 will not only provide a great opportunity for the team to do well, but it will offer women's football a springboard to mass awareness in England.
The Football Association's successful bid could see the women's game launch as a spectator sport, which would benefit the game as a whole - encouraging more girls to play through role models such as Rachel Yankey, Fara Williams and Katie Chapman and also showing potential investors the commercial merits of women's football.
Heifetz concluded: "England is a perfect place for the women's game to grow due to the tremendous structure of the men's game. If the men's clubs can help foster the women's games, not so much in paying the players or becoming professional, but giving them a place to train and games to play, it would be a great boost to the women's game.
"Patience is key. Success will not happen overnight, especially in a culture where men's football has dominated for 100 years."
by Sally Bratton