Legitimacy, at long last, for Lionesses

Updated: June 22, 2011, 12:58 PM ET
By Roger Bennett | Special to

If John Hughes had come of age in suburban Glasgow instead of the American Midwest, the movie "Gregory's Girl" is the kind of classic he would have conjured. The soccer-themed film was to 1980s Britain what "The Breakfast Club" was to the States: generation-defining, coming-of-age magic.

Crafted by cult Scottish director Bill Forsyth, the movie revolved around the tale of how a teenage girl revived the sagging fortunes of a high school boys' soccer team. Feathered of hair, long of leg and nimble of foot, Dorothy was a beauty whose allure was matched only by her skill. Outplaying all the boys, she became an unobtainable object of affection. When she stroked home a goal, even vanquished opponents lined up to join in the celebration.

[+] EnlargeAlex Scott
David Rogers/Getty ImagesEngland right back Alex Scott helped lead the Arsenal Ladies to a "quadruple" in 2009, including the FA Women's Premier League and UEFA Women's Cup titles, before she joined the Boston Breakers.

The conceit behind the movie was simple yet powerful. At the time of its release in 1981, the notion that a beautiful woman could be a terrific soccer player was comically unimaginable. For British cinemagoers, such a creature was a figure of fantasy, no more real than mermaids, banshees or Kelly LeBrock's bodacious computer-generated "perfect" girlfriend in that other John Hughes masterwork, "Weird Science."

The British Isles never had a Title IX moment, and in the 1980s women and soccer (read women and sport) were as synonymous as England and modern orthodontics. Women's soccer was a marginal outsider pursuit played by a derided handful who, in the words of peerless Financial Times writer Simon Kuper, "were exiled to muddy park pitches, and jeered at as lesbians."

But on the cusp of this World Cup, the English women's game is ascendant. In the past two decades, a determined struggle has led to gradual change. Against the odds, and in the face of constant ridicule, the game's infrastructure, exposure and legitimacy have inched forward. In the 1980s, fewer than 10,000 women dared play the game. Now, more than 157,000 players are registered and a grassroots development strategy has been crafted. Further, in April 2011, a groundbreaking Women's Super League was launched -- an elite eight-team summer competition charged with nudging the women's game out of the shadows cast by the English Premier League juggernaut.

As with every step in the development of English women's soccer, progress has been incremental. The league, fielding such titans as Arsenal Ladies and Everton Ladies, is semiprofessional, with an emphasis on "semi." The average annual salary is just $26,000, and the games are played on fields as sparsely turfed as Wayne Rooney's pre-op hairline. But the legitimacy they offer is crucial. Ten years ago, Arsenal Ladies were expected to wash the men's team jerseys. Now, they star in nationally televised games. For the first time ever, British women can carve out a living playing the sport they love.

Despite the progress, the battle for respect continues. In January 2011, two leading Sky Sports pundits, Andy Gray and Richard Keys, mocked a female assistant referee running the line in an English Premier League game. Gray pompously declared when he was miked-up that "women don't know the offside rule." Both men were fired, but the incident proved that old habits die hard, no matter how medieval they are.

The establishment of the Super League has garnered the players a degree of domestic respect. The World Cup will be their opportunity to prove they belong at the pinnacle of the women's game. The Three Lionesses arrive in Germany equipped with a bounty of belief and momentum after an undefeated qualifying campaign (seven wins and just one draw). Ranked 10th in the world, they experienced their first final at Euro 2009, a 6-2 battering at the hands of Germany; despite the score line, the match seasoned the team, providing the women with the inkling that they can compete at the elite level.

This World Cup squad is the most competitive England has ever produced, marrying strength, depth and experience. Shrewd coach Hope Powell is a tactician so refined that there have been suggestions she should replace men's national coach Fabio Capello.

[+] EnlargeHope Powell
David Rogers/Getty ImagesCoach Hope Powell has guided the England women's national team to the quarterfinals of the last World Cup and the final of the 2009 UEFA Women's Championship.

Boston Breakers striker Kelly Smith is a game-changing ball handler, widely respected as the finest female soccer player England has ever produced. The playmaker has battled the adversity of drinking problems and depression while clocking up more than 100 international appearances. Her menace is accentuated by the width derived from experienced Rachel Yankey and hard-running Alex Scott, a right back who marauds like Barca's Dani Alves without the tattoos. At the back, captain Faye White, a dominant central defender in the classic English mode, has just returned from injury. And there's Santa Monica-born goalkeeper Karen Bardsley, Californian by birth but Mancunian by blood.

How well will the team fare? Drawn in Group B alongside Mexico, New Zealand and Japan, the English should reach the elimination round. And when they do, there are few teams they would prefer to be matched against than the Americans, for whom they bear a lingering grudge from the quarterfinals of the last World Cup. The U.S. dumped the Lionesses 3-0, but the game's turning point came when U.S. forward Abby Wambach's flailing elbow connected with White's face, shattering her nose. The match was scoreless at the time, but with White rocked, Wambach soon broke the deadlock and the floodgates opened.

In April, England triumphed 2-1 in a friendly against a lackluster American side, a confidence-boosting victory that snapped a run of eight losses head-to-head. If the teams are matched up again, England will fancy its chances.

Skilled, but not hyped, the English are a stark yet refreshing contrast to their male counterparts: an England XI who, though not favored, are dark horses, capable of winning the tournament if they can overcome their opponents as they have overcome the derision of their countrymen. They undoubtedly have invested the hard work and sacrifice to deserve the glory. And, with it, the satisfaction of being feted by those who once scorned them. Bringing home the trophy would provide the nation with the one thing it craves above all: a World Cup victory the men's team has failed to deliver time and time again.

Roger Bennett is the co-host of Off The Ball and appears on Futbol Frenzy on "Morning Joe" every Monday. He can be reached via Twitter: @rogbennett