Amid all the arrests of FIFA executives and allegations of corruption coming forth in the past week, the actual tournaments coming up can get lost in the shuffle. The FIFA Women’s World Cup begins next week on June 6 in Canada, and this tournament promises to be a great benchmark for women’s football. For the first time in the women’s game, there will be 24 nations competing in the final tournament, expanded from 16 nations in 2011. The 2015 tournament also promises to have the highest number of title contenders yet. The United States and Germany are most likely still favorites, but current titleholders Japan as well as France, Sweden, and Brazil have recently elevated themselves to top tier teams.
With women’s football experiencing such advancement leading up to the 2015 Women’s World Cup, it is a good time to take a look back at the beginning of women’s football and one of the pioneering teams in the sport. Dick, Kerr Ladies FC, one of the first women’s football clubs, was founded in 1914 by the women working at the Dick, Kerr & Co. factory in Preston, England. With many working age men sent off to fight in World War I, women temporarily entered the factory workforce at many companies in the 1910s. The factories organized competitive sports on breaks to boost morale at home, and in 1917 the women of the Preston factory organized into a football club with office worker Alfred Frankland as the team’s coach.
Dick, Kerr Ladies FC quickly garnered a large following playing charity matches to raise money for British soldiers. On Christmas day 1917, at the ground for Preston North End, Dick, Kerr Ladies played their first competitive match against Arundel Coulthard Factory, a team of workers at another factory in Preston. The match attracted 10,000 spectators, and Dick, Kerr Ladies won the match 4-0. After the war, the team continued to play matches to raise money for World War I veterans, and continued to attract audiences in the tens of thousands.
In the spring of 1920, the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies achieved another first for women’s football and played the first ever series of women’s international matches. A team of selected players from Paris assembled by women’s sport pioneer Alice Milliat traveled to the United Kingdom and played four matches around the country against the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies. The first match was played in Preston and attracted a crowd of over 25,000 spectators. In front of such a large crowd, the Dick, Kerr’s performed well and defeated the French team 2-0. The next two matches at Stockport and Manchester resulted in another win for Dick, Kerr’s and one draw. The final match was required to be outside Lancashire, and was played in London at famed Stamford Bridge stadium, home of Chelsea FC. The Dick,, Kerr’s played a strong game, but the French team triumphed for the first time, earning a 2-1 win. Dick Kerr’s reciprocated the French visit in the autumn of that year and played a four game tour against the French team in France. In matches played in Paris, Roubaix, Le Havre, and Rouen, Dick, Kerr’s went unbeaten by the French team and played in front of a total of 62,000 spectators.
On December 26, 1920, Dick, Kerr’s Ladies FC reached their greatest moment in the club’s history. Dick, Kerr’s played a match against St. Helen’s Ladies, a women’s team from the Sutton Bond munitions factory in Merseyside. The match was held in Goodison Park, Everton’s stadium. Dick, Kerr’s Ladies won the match 4-0. However, the match went into the annals of women’s football history not for the score, but for its attendance. The attendance of the match was determined at over 53,000 – at a time when Everton FC had an average attendance of 37,000 – and remains to this day the highest attendance of a women’s club football match.
Unfortunately, the popularity of the Dick, Kerr Ladies and the growing popularity of other women’s football teams in England led to a heavy and quick backlash from the Football Association, England’s governing football body. In December of 1921, the FA banned women’s football matches from being played in FA team stadiums. A women’s professional league tried to be formed, but many of the teams were left without grounds to play on as they had been using the men’s teams’ stadiums. Dick Kerr’s Ladies was one of the few who had their own grounds, as Dick, Kerr & Co., now English Electric, had bought Ashton Park to use for sporting facilities. However, other women’s clubs were not so fortunate and the league disbanded soon after. Dick, Kerr’s Ladies played abroad in the United States and Canada in the 1920s. In 1926, manager Alfred Frankland had a falling out with his former company, and changed the club’s name to Preston Ladies FC. Preston Ladies FC continued to play until the club disbanded in 1965. In 1971, the FA finally rescinded the ban on women’s use of FA grounds, only after interest in women’s football began increasing again after England hosted the World Cup in 1966.