Injury, Identity, and the Paradox of Women’s Football

women's football, Women's Super League, ACL injuries, Women's World Cup, fixture congestion, burnout
Artwork by Onkar Shirsekar

In women’s football, there is an irreversible sense of lost time.

How do we make up for it? How do we do that as soon as possible? How do we protect the players who have forced the shift in perception and seeped into cultural consciousness? Where’s the rulebook? Do the instructions apply to women?

When governing bodies, brands, and media finally rummage through its years of neglect, pluck it out for its potential for deepened pockets, and promise to take its prospects seriously, should we be cautious not to rush the shaping of an identity whose history is one of cultural robbery?

New ownership or management is often a point of reflection of past, present, and future. In its biggest change in the modern era, the breakaway of England’s top two women’s leagues next season is to be led by Nikki Doucet, a former executive at Nike and investment banker.

In her first round of press for ‘NewCo’, Doucet said of the success of women’s football as a “different and distinct product (with) a unique audience”, and one that will work going forward with “a backdrop of 100 years of men’s football history”.

Women’s football in England is still figuring itself out; who it is for, where it is played, how often, and how to protect the pillars of its success amid its expansion. It is easy to forget the Women’s Super League in England became professional only seven years ago. Two years later, there were 50 WSL players in the 2019 Women’s World Cup, a tournament branded as a turning point in the sport’s popularity. This has increased to 94 players by 2023.

In the season after the Lionesses won the Euros in 2022, there was a 235% increase in the average WSL attendance. Since then, viewing hours for the WSL have continued to increase on Sky Sports and BBC channels in deals worth £8 million. DAZN’s portfolio of women’s competitions, including UEFA’s Champions League, was made free to stream this year to encourage commercial growth.

The pandemic that pushed back the Tokyo Olympics meant the top national teams were to play a tournament every summer from 2021 to 2025. The consecutive series of hugely successful international tournaments flooded domestic games with interest and commercial funding. It is, therefore, no surprise that in this rushed and rapid rise of the game, fundamental senses of identity are still finding their feet. If those responsible for helping the sport take its next steps are using the background of “100 years” to help them, they can’t afford to be selective over that history. If it is finally coming of age, it should feed on the centuries’ junkyard of flaws as well as the financial fruits of the men’s game.

Put simply, the WSL is in a critical epoch of its development. From fan culture, marketing, and globalisation, it is on the precipice of splintering off into commercial stratospheres. The inequalities of fundamental funding and knowledge that exist between the men’s and women’s games, however, should heed caution. Women’s football cannot walk blindly into a footballing obsession with expansion without dragging along the sports science and infrastructure with it.

Since the turn of the year, eleven elite and high-profile players have suffered ACL injuries. Sam Kerr tore hers doing “something simple and innocuous” in training. When Jill Roord got injured, she was wearing boots with studs specifically designed for women. So prevalent is the injury and awareness of it, Leah Williamson admitted she felt it was simply “her time” last year to suffer it, as if everyone is a ticking time bomb. This generation of female footballers has been dehumanised as “guinea pigs” in their bodies’ response to elite training and more intense playing schedules.

‘NewCo’ is an independent entity, a governing body revenue-generating for profit. It no doubt has lucrative potential. Along with England’s international success and women’s football coming of age in the cultural consciousness, there’s an untapped market of non-football fans that NewCo is trying to convert into women’s football fans. The current chair of the WSL claimed last year that the league could become the first “billion-pound” women’s league.

FIFA sees women’s football as a financial prospect to utilise. In growing into the cultural consciousness, commercialisation, and globalisation on par with the men’s game, they grow the risk of being exploited on par with them, too. In the modern sporting pursuit of blurring body with machine, its obsession with expansion, and governance over players involving ownership with little responsibility, where does the product end and the body begin?

In 2019, FIFPRO published a report on men’s player workload titled “At the Limit”. Last year they released another on the “adverse effects on player health and well-being” as seasons grow longer and more intense.

The cause of such seasons is greed disguised as a commercially sustainable future. Envious of UEFA’s annual Champions League income, FIFA has repeatedly tried to convince the world that we all need and indeed want a men’s biannual, expanded World Cup, and, from 2025, have inflated the Club World Cup to 32 teams.

As Jurgen Klopp complained: “FIFA say we’ll have a tournament, and UEFA say so will we…And they all think their tournament is most important. You cannot just add on tournaments. It doesn’t work.”

When the idea of a Women’s Club World Cup was “officially endorsed” at a FIFA meeting at the end of 2022, it was with the caveat that “players’ health and well-being” would be a “primary goal.” In response, Bayern’s Pernille Harder shared her worries on how players are not being listened to over their rest recommendations.

Whilst many male players and managers regularly rue their congested schedules, the player power of women’s football exists in wider social and political implications. Players have grown into the image and responsibility of role models on and off the pitch; the line between athlete and activism sometimes blurring. This appeals to audiences. It is perhaps one of the greatest strengths the women’s game has. As a recent survey from The Athletic uncovered, fans may even see female players in a “more human way”.

So when an “epidemic” of ACL injuries sweeps the elite of female athletes, it feels more personal. As Lyon’s Ada Hederberg said in her recent plea for player protection for The Guardian: “We know who we are, where we are now, and where we came from.”

Last December, UEFA announced an expert panel on women’s health to seek a “deeper understanding” of ACL injuries. The issue, as Hederberg points out, is that whilst the talk about the need for research is necessary, the research needs to then be filtered “into the women’s football ecosystem for the benefit of all players”.

In general injury and health problems, this is already inadequate. A FIFPRO survey of 260 players following the 2023 World Cup found two-thirds were “not at their physical peak”, attributed to a condensed calendar and insufficient staff. Of those surveyed players, 10% did not receive a pre-tournament medical exam and 22% did not have an electrocardiogram. Both procedures are mandatory in FIFA regulations. In the WSL, the minimum requirement for physiotherapy staff is lower and less funded than male equivalents. Only around 8% of all sports scientists in football are women. Only 6% of studies are done exclusively on women.

The injury crisis is becoming a gendered issue—the growth of women’s football has been so astronomical in a male-dominated space that we know little about the bodies that propelled them there.

If we are to read into the “100 years of men’s history in football” comment, then the more recent ones have sounded like an echo chamber plagued with complaints about fixture congestion falling on deaf governing ears.

Take, for example, the Players Football Association’s chief executive Maheta Molango’s timely point last year that FIFA and UEFA are using the same “assets”, across the men’s and women’s games respectively. He said, “I’m using the word assets for purpose because they all want to milk the same cow.”

Football has become a product to be picked up and placed and packaged anywhere in the world, a flawless design for capital. And it is this capitalist fixation on technical perfection and performance beyond the limit of its endurance that threatens the sustainable future of the most globalised and popular sport.

At the heart of the hope in women’s football is a desire that it will maintain its unique differences and yet mirror the cultural and global influence of men’s football. It’s a paradox of its time and one it will have to figure out.

Juliet Nottingham

Into football, films, Wales, and other nice things. Studying journalism to counteract.