Eniola Aluko and Sue Smith on women's football's long road to recognition
The Football Association’s ‘Game Changer’ plan a five-year strategy announced at the end of last month with the intention of driving the women’s game forward, is a cause for optimism.
“It is a young sport so it is still in the teething stage however gradually increasing in popularity,” England and Birmingham striker, Eniola Aluko tells The Positive.
Aluko raises an important point, women’s football is evolving and work has to be done before the game fulfils its Olympic promise. Development seems to be the answer. The FA’s continuing investment and growth at the grassroots level suggests success on the pitch may soon drive the narrative.
The Olympics showed it was possible. The GB team emblazoned the front and back pages during their campaign, opening London 2012, and quickly capturing the nation’s heart. “The Olympics were fantastic for women’s football,” England’s Sue Smith tells The Positive. “The crowds and TV audiences were way above our expectations.”
Smith’s engaging and spot-on TV analysis also proved that women might well be successful as commentators. “I try to disregard the inequality and relinquish it from getting to me. The men’s game is so advanced and we should forbear from trying to compete, “ says the Doncaster Rovers Belles player.
Nigerian-born Aluko manages to fit in a full-time career as a lawyer with training for England and Birmingham, Arsenal’s closest rivals for the title last season. Her brother, Sone Aluko, plays for Championship team Hull City, and while their earnings from football differ, their training regimes differ.
“We put in similar training hours. I train every day” Aluko says. “England coach, Hope Powell, has been very understanding and I am very fortunate.”
The introduction of the Women’s Super League in 2011 improved wages for players although most work part-time to make ends meet. However, the women’s game is starting to get more mainstream attention. “There has been development at international level with bigger crowds turning up to matches, which was evident from the Olympics,” Aluko asserts.
The FA have ensured access to players is easier to the stadiums, making for a close relationship between fans and their idols. Every club in the WSL has a nominated digital ambassador who uses social media to connect with fans.
“Women footballers pride themselves on being approachable and that’s a big difference from the men. We always meet our fans post-match and reply to most of our tweets,” says Smith, who is digital ambassador for Doncaster Rovers Belles.
During her time away from the pitch, 32-year-old Smith is kept busy with TV work and promoting sport in schools. While the Olympics did its best to inspire a generation of women footballers, development ultimately relies on people like Smith sharing their passion. She has already seen a difference over the last few years and believes there is a bright future.
“The young girls coming through are so talented because they have had quality coaching from a young age.” Smith concludes: “Women’s football is looking bright.”