Stepping Into the Spotlight

English soccer has come a long ways since 1921, when the sport's governing body declared the game
English soccer has come a long ways since 1921, when the sport's governing body declared the game "quite unsuitable for females." (By Greg Baker -- Associated Press)
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 22, 2007

TIANJIN, China, Sept. 21 -- On Saturday afternoon, while most British soccer supporters are preparing for the day's Premier League action, the BBC will televise live an English national team match being played in a major tournament overseas. The players, from revered clubs such as Arsenal, Chelsea and Everton, will represent a nation that, more than a century ago, refined the sport and then spread it around the world.

The fabled jerseys will look the same, stamped with the Three Lions, symbol of national pride, but the names on the back will be anything but familiar.

Forget Beckham, Rooney and Lampard. Get to know Stoney, Yankey and Smith.

Obscured for generations by the men's game, the English women's team has attracted rare mainstream attention back home after advancing out of group play and earning a World Cup quarterfinal matchup with the top-ranked United States on Saturday at Tianjin Olympic Center Stadium.

"Undoubtedly we are the clear underdogs," said Hope Powell, England's dreadlocked coach of nine years. "They are expected to beat us, we are under no illusion."

Regardless of what unfolds, though, England already has made significant strides toward building a world-class program and, perhaps, persuading a soccer-mad country to support it as well as the men's side. Appearing in the World Cup for only the second time, England earned a victory and two ties in the first round, including a scoreless draw with defending champion Germany, to beat out Japan for Group A's second quarterfinal berth.

Until this week, the most well-known female player from England might have been the character played by actress Keira Knightley in the hit film "Bend It Like Beckham."

Long ignored by the media, the English team has stepped into a spotlight, albeit a small one compared with the bright lights of the men's game. The BBC will showcase Saturday's match on its main channel and several newspapers have reporters on site.

It is significant progress for English women's soccer, which in 1921 was banned from being played on league fields because the Football Association, the sport's governing body, declared that the game is "quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged."

And it could provide a boost to the obscure women's league in England, which is semipro but supplies the players to the national team. While the U.S. program pays most of its World Cup players between $50,000 and $70,000 annually, provides living allowances, pays out bonuses and has residency camps, Powell's players work for the post office, are in law school and pursuing a doctorate, teach and coach. Several of England's major clubs field women's teams, but they are small operations.

"We knew we were capable of performances we've put in," said Faye White, the national team's top defender who will attempt to neutralize U.S. striker Abby Wambach. "Other countries are starting to recognize now England is an emerging force in women's soccer."

The national team was launched 35 years ago but never fully supported by the FA, which allowed countries such as the United States, Germany and Norway to lead the way.

The U.S. team is "fortunate enough that their federation invested heavily into something they believed in, and that helped them reach some success," said Powell, 40, who had 35 goals in 66 appearances for England. "They still support them real well. It's been a long journey in terms of getting support needed and financial backing to enable us to do the things we wanted to do. So really we've been playing catch-up for the last nine, 10 years."

Several of her players have gained experience competing in the United States, most notably Kelly Smith, a former Seton Hall star now regarded as one of the top forwards in the world and perhaps England's best hope for sparking an upset Saturday.

"Everybody is buzzing at home, and the support we've had has been excellent," Powell said. "We will see, when everything is done and dusted, I think we can promote women's football for the achievements we have had here. The opportunity when we get home is to make it better."

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