After Enduring Women's Ban, Soccer Pioneer Cheers Change

Beating Spain in World Cup final would close book on 'huge injustice,' Gail Newsham says
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 19, 2023 3:30 PM CDT
Women's Soccer Pioneer Who Endured UK Ban Cheers Team
England's Rachel Daly, center, and Australia's Ellie Carpenter, left, challenge for the ball during the Women's World Cup semifinal between Australia and England in Sydney, Australia, on Wednesday.   (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

Gail Newsham can't stop grinning as she prepares for England's soccer team to play in the final of the Women's World Cup. Newsham, 70, grew up at a time when women in England were banned from the sport—called football here—and helped lead a resurgence in the game once those restrictions were lifted. Now she's getting ready to watch Sunday's game against Spain on TV and hoping to see her team bring home the world championship. "I'll be wearing my shirt, I'll be having a sausage roll and a glass of bubbles," Newsham said, already sporting her blue England jersey. "That's what I've done every match, so I'm going to do it again on Sunday and just, you know, cheer the girls on."

That would provide a moment of redemption for women who lived through the long and sometimes difficult history of women's football in England. Newsham helped tell that story when she wrote a book about Dick, Kerr Ladies Football Club, which flourished during and for a few years after World War I, when women filled the sporting gap left after top men's players went off to the trenches. Women's teams, many organized at munitions plants, attracted large crowds and raised money for charity. One match in 1920 attracted 53,000 spectators. But that popularity triggered a backlash from the men who ran the English Football Association. In 1921, the FA barred women's teams from using its facilities, saying "the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged."

The ban remained in place for 50 years. That didn't stop Newsham from playing street football with the boys in her hometown of Preston. After the ban was lifted, she spent two decades playing for Preston Rangers on substandard pitches, often without changing rooms or even proper toilets. The FA took responsibility for the women's game in 1993, beginning the slow process of improving funding and facilities. Things accelerated after the 2012 London Olympics, when authorities began to recognize there was a global audience for the women's game. Now, Newsham is beyond excited about the prospect of winning the World Cup. "It's like a Greek tragedy, but with a happy ending," she said, adding, "It was a huge injustice in 1921, and it's taken its time to get back to where we are."

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She won't be alone. When the Lionesses take the field, they will be backed by hordes of girls rooting for their heroes, mothers and grandmothers celebrating the progress that has been made. England's only World Cup title came in 1966, when the men won. "I feel like the Lionesses give us hope—to all of us, boys and girls, women and men," said Huda Jawad, a member of a fan group known as the Three Hijabis for their Muslim headscarves. She said the team provides "something to look forward to and to be proud of and to show that actually football, like society, can be joyous, it can be equal, it can be hopeful, that we can have community and friendship and solidarity." Spain will be playing in its first women's final, as well. The game will be played in Sydney at 8 pm local time, 6am EDT in the US, per the AP.

(Read more Women's World Cup stories.)

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