One of my fondest memories of the 2011 Women's World Cup was going down to the pub on a Sunday morning EST to watch the day's so-called "group of death" matches involving Canada, Germany, France, and Nigeria. There wasn't a huge turnout, but we were surprised and delighted by the group of ex-pat Germans who arrived and proceeded to rock the hell out of supporting der Frauen-Nationalmannschaft, standing in a row during the national anthem, arms linked, singing, and generally exhibiting an intensity of fan support that is usually reserved for 7:30am derby day kick-offs.
Perhaps it was the fact that Germany was hosting the tournament that caused the increased fervour in a way that belies all stereotypes about Germans, but even beyond the obvious and vocal fan support the German women's team received, they were also receiving huge amounts of support on a national level, including from the DFB and the men's senior national team.
Fast forward to the 2012 London Olympics and the Women's Football semi-final match between Canada and the USA. All controversial moments of that match aside, fans and pundits alike listed the match as one of the best they'd seen all year. No one used "women's football" as a qualifier to put the match into perspective; it was an excellent match, period. The rivalry that exists between the two teams nearly a year later is still so potent that a friendly scheduled for June 2 in Toronto nearly sold out the day tickets went on sale, at a venue that the Canadian men's national team generally only filled to about 75% capacity during their failed World Cup 2014 qualifying run.
In the context of much changed momentum regarding the state of the women's game, it's no surprise that there has been a trickledown effect both in the media and at club level in the various professional and semi-professional women's leagues.
The Liverpool Ladies play in the FA WSL (Women's Super League) and finished dead last for each of its two seasons since the league formed in 2011. As with the men's side, the team is going through a major rebuilding from the ground up, with coach Matt Beard having signed eleven new players for the 2013 season, including four who made a brave move across Stanley Park to join the club from Everton.
The investment in the team hasn't stopped at new player acquisitions, either. The club moved from a 2,500 seat stadium at West Lancashire College to a 13,000 seater that is also home to rugby league side Widnes Vikings. The Liverpool media team has increased their coverage of the ladies team leaps and bounds from the two previous seasons, to the point where they are catching up in coverage with the reserve and upper-level Academy sides. Most importantly, the team are being embraced as part of the club's larger identity.
"It was an initiative to enhance our one club mentality," said Brendan Rodgers after a day in which the men's and women's senior teams trained alongside each other at Melwood. "It's important that the women's section of the club feel very much a part of the club. It's great to put some faces to the names that we already know, and it's great for the guys to integrate."
It would be easy to dismiss the importance of such a gesture, given that none of the women will ever make the men's first team, and yet purposeful inclusion speaks volumes about the club's values and the importance they place on the ongoing project helmed by Beard.
"The lads really got us involved and made an effort with us, which was lovely," enthused Natasha Dowie, one of the four who moved to the club from Everton. "It's nice to feel how a professional lives and the facilities are perfect, so we really appreciate it. We feel like part of the squad now."
If it's true that all players are confidence players, then the positive lift the team has received from all the investment — monetarily, geographically, emotionally, or otherwise — has already seen an immediate return when it comes to results. The team scored thirty goals and won five matches straight during a combination of pre-season matches and their first match of the FA Cup, followed by a slight dip in results after drawing their Continental Cup match against Everton this past Saturday. Pre-season results mean little in the grand scheme of things, of course, but such results can only help to gel a brand new team of players who are still getting familiar with each other's strengths and weaknesses.
Following suit with their male counterparts, the ladies team has ambitions that will be familiar and possibly exasperating to anyone who has read this site with any regularity in the last few months.
"We want to be in the top end of the table so top four or above is where we are looking as a minimum," said Matt Beard, without apparently any sense of irony. "We'll review that after every three games and see where we are and what we need to do to make sure we are competing with the likes of Arsenal and Birmingham."
To be fair, a top-four finish for the Ladies doesn't come with the same sense of despair and woe given that the WSL only has eight teams in it and only the top two teams receive automatic Champions League qualification. Still, for a club that finished dead last for the past two seasons , a top half finish, even against only seven other teams, would still be considered an accomplishment. It would also help set the tone for the 2014 season when the league expands to twelve teams.
The women's game is not just growing in participation but in national media attention as well, and it's increasingly easier (although by no means easy) to watch women's football within the UK. ESPN will be carrying a handful of WSL and Continental Cup matches and highlights throughout the season, which is a first for the network. For vocal locals who are against modern football, ticket prices are also quite reasonable since £5 is all it costs to attend a match.
With WSL being a summer league, it's obviously too early to determine how all the investments made in the squad will pay off by season's end; however, the major influx of resources is causing some ripples in the women's game, with few clubs having the same types of assets available to them to build a winning side. Absolutely no one in WSL is verging on Roman Abramovich or Sheikh Mansour territory when it comes to buying enough players to make a title-challenging run, obviously, but prudent investment over multiple years could bring Liverpool Ladies that much closer to Arsenal Ladies, who have the honour of winning Arsenal twenty-six trophies since 2005.
The Liverpool Ladies kick off their league campaign away to Lincoln Ladies on April 14.