As England prepares to take on Spain on Sunday, we trace the history of an often controversial sport—starting with its origins in…. China!
Researched by: Rachel John
An ancient history of football
The first documented instance of women playing football dates back to ancient China—to the Dong Han Dynasty (25-220 AD). The game was called cuju and was often written as ts’u-chü—which translates literally as “kick-ball”. It even inspired a poem that reads:
A round ball and a square wall,
Just like the Yin and Yang.
Moon-shaped goals are opposite each other,
Each side has six in equal number.
Select the captains and appoint the referee(s),
Based on the unchangeable regulations.
Don’t regard relatives and friends,
Keep away from partiality.
Maintain fairness and peace
Don’t complain of other’s faults,
Such is the matter of cuju.
If all this is necessary for cuju.
How much more for the business of life.
This 15th century scroll painted by Du Jin shows female courtiers playing the game:
Farewell cuju, hello football: Women continued to play cuju in the 17th century despite the appalling tradition of foot binding—often using their hips to manoeuvre the ball. The sport finally declined in the 19th century after the arrival of Western influences. But women’s football is still going strong in China. The national team won the Asian Cup title recently—and is ranked #14 in the world. And they have played in almost all World Cups since the start of the tournament—while the men’s team has yet to qualify in the past two decades.
Meanwhile, in Europe: The first recorded women’s game dates back to 1628. It is captured in an outraged statement issued by a Scottish church minister—who spotted men and women playing the game on Sabbath. The first international match took place in May, 1881—between England and Scotland in Glasgow:
[T]he game was called "a rather novel match": players wore jerseys, stockings, knickerbockers, belts, high-heeled boots, and cowls on the field… According to one report… the game ended when the women were chased off the field (admittedly, we don't know if the booing was due to misogyny or general soccer hooliganism). Many of the players in that game used pseudonyms, either out of social propriety or for protection
Women’s football was thereafter banned in Scotland. But this story has a happy ending: Scotland captain Helen Graham Matthew simply fled to London where she co-founded the British Ladies’ Football Club in 1895. You can see an illustration of the infamous first international fixture below:
The glory years: The first women’s club game drew 12,000 people—and soon the number of clubs grew. During these early years, the clubs drew the support of middle class women campaigning for the right to vote. See one of the teams below:
But there was little love for the ladies in the newspapers. One of them declared:
It must be clear to everybody that girls are totally unfitted for the rough work of the football-field. As a means of exercise in the back garden it is not to be commended; as a public entertainment it is to be deplored.
The boom years: came during World War I—when the men were at the frontlines and the men’s league had to be suspended. Women who took their place at the factory line soon started their own teams—the most celebrated being the Dick Kerr’s Ladies which raised a sum equivalent to millions of pounds in funds for the war.
The ban: The success of the women’s game infuriated the English Football Association (FA). A Christmas season match drew a full stadium of 53,000 in 1920. And another 10,000 were turned away at the gates. In 1921, the English Football Association— helmed by Lord Kinnaird—formally banned women from competing in their grounds, as well as from using their training facilities. The ban would remain in place for another 50 years.
The path to a women World Cup
The first international tournament was held in Turin. The unofficial version of a world cup had seven teams. Denmark won the trophy—beating Italy 2-0.
The grand COPA spectacle: In 1971, the FIFF (Federazione Internazionale di Football Femminile) staged a 21-day tournament with six teams: England, France, Denmark, Argentina, Italy and Mexico. England had even defied an FA ban to fly into Mexico City. It turned into a glorious celebration of women’s football—as the teams played to packed stadiums filled with 100,000 roaring fans. According to The Guardian:
By way of heightening marketing appeal to a female audience, the goal frames were painted in pink and white hoops, all stadium staff wore pink outfits and pop-up hair and beauty salons appeared outside the Azteca Stadium… Indeed it was such a hit that…media coverage extended to a Mexican soft porn magazine. “The match reports were the only non-smutty thing in it,” [professor of sport Jean William] says.
The unabashed enthusiasm among Mexicans for women’s football also served as a glaring counterpoint to Western chauvinism. Three months after the tournament, FA lifted its ban.
A sad aftermath: Despite its smashing success, the 1971 tournament ended up as a footnote in history. Long forgotten, its memory is now being revived in an upcoming documentary titled ‘COPA 1971’—produced by Serena and Venus Williams. See the trailer below:
Enter FIFA: Women’s leagues continued to play in smaller tournaments through the 1980s—wilfully ignored by the football governing body FIFA. That’s until Norwegian delegate Ellen Wille publicly called it out in 1986—at the organisation’s 45th Congress. FIFA was wary of lending the World Cup branding to a potential failure. So it trialled an invitational tournament in China in 1988—bringing together 12 teams including the US.
Impressed by its success, FIFA held the first women’s world cup in 1991—also in China—the land of cuju!
More than half-a-million fans attended to watch 12 national teams compete, and after Team USA beat Norway in the final before a crowd of 65,000 at the Tianhe Staidum in Guangzhou, FIFA’s then-president João Havelange wrote, “women’s football is now well and truly established.”
Quote to note: The women’s matches were still 10 minutes shorter than the men’s—prompting the captain of the US team to quip that organisers “were afraid our ovaries were going to fall out if we played 90.”
Women’s World Cup 2023
This is the ninth edition—being co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand. A whopping 32 teams competed this year—the highest number ever. Also a record: the prize money of $110 million—which is 3X the previous world cup (although the men’s kitty is way higher at $440 million). See the very cool teaser for the tournament below:
A tournament of firsts: Eight countries debuted in this edition of the world cup—Haiti, Morocco, Panama, The Philippines, Portugal, Republic of Ireland, Vietnam and Zambia. Morocco is the first North African and Arab nation to qualify for the World Cup—and they made it all the way to the round of 16. It also included the first football player to play in a hijab: Nouhaila Benzina:
Canada fielded the first trans player to play the tournament: Quinn:
A grand success: This may be the most successful women’s world cup—with 9.4 million people watching the matches on television—and 1.7 million tickets sold.
A rocky road: Compared to the men’s World Cup in Qatar, there have been more internal controversies in various teams. French players revolted against their coach Corrine Diacre—who had to be replaced before the tournament. The president of the Canadian federation was forced to resign due to an open conflict with the team. The most notable is Spain—which has managed to enter the final despite being it at odds with their coach—yup, the one leading them right now:
It is almost a year since the open revolt that led to 15 players demanding the removal of the coach, Jorge Vilda, and make numerous complaints about the team’s culture and support system. Some returned to the fold with varying degrees of reluctance; some have stayed away.
The bottomline: This is the very first World Cup final for Spain and England. The Lionesses have been ruling the roost after winning the Euros in 2022—and are favoured to win. But as they say in American football—on any given Sunday…
FIFA Museum has lots more details on the ancient Chinese sport cuju. The Guardian and Evening Standard are best on the history of women’s football in Europe. TIME has a detailed overview of how the Women’s World Cup was established—while The Guardian has a lovely illustrated guide. New York Times and Al Jazeera have the best overview of the 2023 World Cup. Washington Post looks at why the finals are so special for Spain.