Visibility is such a huge factor in improving the reach and reputation of women’s sport. And this summer looks like it could be a turning point in terms of levelling out what has been up until now a very unequal playing field. Not only is there a big commitment from broadcasters such as the BBC and Sky to show the majority of matches at the football and netball World Cups, there is also key investment from sponsors such as Boots and NIKE.
And yes, there is the valid argument that we should refer to it as just ‘football’, rather than ‘women’s football’, but by doing so we don’t make it any less skilful or technical. Maybe there will be a time when this will be the case, but right now it should be celebrated for what it is: a brilliant display of skill, ambition, commitment, team mentality and hard work, which is there for everyone to watch.
‘The more games that are on telly obviously helps young girls who are watching,’ says Lioness captain Steph Houghton. ‘But I feel as though it’s not just young girls, it’s young boys too because they just love football and they’ll watch it whether it’s women’s or men’s. We need to try and keep challenging that perception.’
At this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup it won’t just be the players who are having to prove themselves and challenge perceptions. As last year’s World Cup in Russia showed, there is still a backward attitude to women presenters and commentators in football: with instances of men criticising both pundits’ knowledge and even the pitch of commentator Vicki Sparks’ voice, who incidentally in 2018 became the first woman to commentate live on a televised World Cup match in the UK.
In front of the camera, behind the camera, on the side line and in the changing room, we pay homage to the women who are working hard to change the game. They might not be playing on the pitch but they will be playing a huge part in the tournament. And with 6.1million people tuning in to England's first game (making it the most watched women's game ever), there will be a lot of eyes on them.
An England midfielder who also plays for Arsenal, Jordan made footballing history this year by remaining part of the England squad in the run up to the World Cup despite being injured. She won’t be playing in this summer’s tournament, but she will be taking up a new role in front of the camera as part of the BBC’s pundit team.
‘We’re role models on the pitch but off the pitch we need to be just as big role models,’ says Jordan. ‘The more people get used to seeing women’s faces or women footballers in the media the more they’re going to get used to it being normal. We are very good at what we do.’
Disappointed by stereotypes that are used to put women down and prevent them from lending their voice, Jordan says: ‘It’s hard but they are barriers that we’ve got to try and push through.’
A former player who earned 140 caps for England, represented Great Britain in the 2012 Olympics and was part of the winning Arsenal team in the 2016 FA Cup, Alex Scott is one of the forces behind this summer’s tournament. Last year she became the first woman pundit to be taken to a World Cup by the BBC, and this summer she’ll be leading the coverage.
She’s said in the past: ‘I do really want to get to the point where people stop talking about me being a female pundit, and I am just a pundit.’ But, she says, the biggest surprise comes when people tell her she’s good, ‘Well, yeah, I’ve been in football since I was eight. Of course, I know what I’m talking about.’
Number two to Lioness coach Phil Neville, Bev Priestman joined the England team last year having worked for the New Zealand FA and Canada Soccer. She says it was the growth of the women’s game here, plus the fact that she believes England can get to number one, that brought her back: 'The players are hungry, their hard work and dedication has been top drawer'.
Her passion for football started aged four when she used to play on her local estate near Newcastle and at primary school, where she was often the only girl who was into football: 'Back then there was no clear visible girls pathway and role models like we have now. I was one of the only girls who played locally and fortunately for me I was taken in like one of the lads and had a head teacher that believed in my ability and invested in me'.
She was the goalkeeper for the USA’s national team for six years, won two Olympic gold medals and has been a World Cup champion, so Hope Solo knows what it takes to win. Some say she's been a controversial figure in the women’s game, after being banned for six months following Rio 2016 for calling the Swedish team ‘a bunch of cowards’.
She’s also part of a group of players who are suing the US Soccer Federation for gender discrimination. She’s not afraid to rock the boat and fight for what’s right, and now she's bringing her expertise to the BBC’s presenting team for the World Cup.
RACHEL YANKEY OBE
An Arsenal legend who played for the north London team for 13 years, Rachel Yankey is England’s most capped player ever (and yes, that includes men and women players). She’s also one of the most driven people in the industry, looking to improve women’s visibility and participation in football.
At age 8, she shaved her head and pretended her name was Ray so she could play in a boys’ team: she went two years undiscovered. During this summer's tournament she'll be part of the BBC's presenting team.
EMMA HAYES MBE
Awarded an MBE for her services to football, Emma Hayes is the manager of Chelsea Women, one of the best teams in the Women’s Super League (WSL). In 2015, as the only female manager in the league, she led the team to win the Women’s FA Cup and the WSL, a historic double title which she managed again last year.
Emma will be part of the presenting team at this year’s World Cup, joining the Radio 5 Live team. She has said it will only be a matter of time before there’s a woman coach in the men’s game - and it could well be her.
A player and sports columnist for the Guardian, Eni Aluko was the first woman to appear as a pundit on BBC's Match of the Day in September 2014. She has 102 caps for England, and was part of the Chelsea team that won the FA Women's Cup Final in 2015.
For Eni, who will be presenting for Fox Sports, this World Cup is going to be the most open yet: ‘I am excited to see the games that you cannot predict the score line and also some upsets where the underdogs beat the favourites’.
And in terms of transferring her skills from the pitch to punditry she says the key is, ‘Preparation, preparation, preparation! For me, the trick to being a good pundit is to prepare your knowledge, read widely about teams and players, and organise those thoughts in my mind so that formed opinions come out naturally when I am live on air.’