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The Women's Game In England – The Way Forward?

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.

 

Last month Fulham Football Club announced that the ladies team would turn from professional to semi-professional from next season. For any other club this would be an enviable opportunity, but not all clubs had been blessed with the bank balance of Fulham's chairman Mohamed Al Fayed, who has spent around £5m since 2000 in trying to recreate the popular success of the women's game in the US.
 
Instead the announcement was regarded as a setback both for the club and for a country that had recently suffered the ignominy of failing to reach the finals of the World Cup next summer.
 
Fulham's pioneering move to professionalism paved the way for other clubs, such as Arsenal, Doncaster Belles and Leeds to turn semi-professional, and had paid off in terms of success - they sit atop the Premier League, and are the League and FA Cup champions.
 
However professionalism had not paid off in profit. Al-Fayed blamed the "mediocre advance in women's football" for the reduction in funds, and criticised the women's Football Association, who he claimed, had reneged on their promise to develop a professional football league by 2003.
 
Bev Ward, spokesperson for the Women's FA disagrees. Pointing out that Fulham had not consulted the FA on their decision, she believes the withdrawal of funding is a symptom of football's parlous financial state.
 
She also stresses that the game is not in decline. "There are now 4 semi-professional teams, which is brilliant. We are still working toward a professional league, but clearly the time isn't yet right."
 
Other semi-professional clubs agree with Ward's assessment. Arsenal and England defender Julie Fletcher says that the structures are being introduced to allow the club to turn professional at the appropriate time.
 
"We have a youth academy in place, and most players are employed by the club, to reduce their travelling time and to ensure they can take time off for their three-times-weekly training and matches."
 
Like Fulham, the team are affiliated to the men's team and share facilities. The club and their sponsors fund them, and every male player sponsors his female counterpart, creating more funds and more publicity.
 
The Arsenal players are content with the semi-pro set-up, and Fletcher believes that it is too soon for clubs to turn fully professional as the profile and funding of women's football remains insufficient.
 
At Fulham however, there is a feeling of despondency. Rachel Yankey, the England midfielder, who became the country's first professional player when she signed for Fulham on 2000, admitted that everything was up in the air.
 
"No-one knows what's going on. It's definitely going to affect the team because we have so many foreigners that can't now afford to live in London," she said. "The manager, Gaute Haugenes, is leaving because he doesn't want to coach a semi-pro team."
 
"The rest of us will have to get jobs and hope we can fit it around our training."
 
Yankey believes team spirit remains as strong as ever, but says that they will have to work harder to maintain their success.
 
"Like other semi-pro clubs we will only be able to train three times a week, as opposed to every day."
 
"But a lot of clubs say that we only win because we are professional. That won't be true next year, and we are determined to show them we can still win all our games."
 
But losing their funding, and many players and their manager, will inevitably have a detrimental effect. It seems Fulham, like Arsenal, are going to have to quickly adapt to being professional semi-professionals.

 

 Anjana Gadgil, February 2003

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