In the past, women’s football has been assessed on the attention paid to it. In 2020, it took a step beyond that.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the warnings for women’s sport were understandably stark. Whilst top level men’s football returned, the women’s league was cancelled and Chelsea were handed the title based on points per game, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.
There was uncertainty about whether women’s teams would even be able to return. Would they have the resources to fund the testing necessary to keep their players safe? Even more recently, the decision to close women’s academies showed clearly that we still live in a world where women’s sporting outcomes play second fiddle.
That reality has meant that for a long time, the success of women’s football has been measured in attention spans. The number of people through the turnstiles or the size of television audiences have been used as heuristics to determine whether the game is growing.
At times, it has made women’s football feel more like a marketing exercise than a sport.
As football grounds across the country fell silent, the game was freed from the hand wringing over numbers. In its place came the focus on superstars.
Sam Kerr’s debut for Chelsea at the start of this year proved to be just the precursor for an influx of the world’s biggest names to the UK. Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle arrived at Manchester City whilst Tobin Heath and Christen Press headed to Manchester United.
Alex Morgan signed for Tottenham in what was potentially the biggest marketing coup of them all, whilst Chelsea made Pernille Harder the most expensive women’s footballer of all time.
There were metrics to back up the value of these arrivals for those who wanted them.
Heath and Press shirts spent three days outselling any Manchester United men’s player. Alex Morgan had more Instagram followers than her club did. These players are the best in the world and they know it. Case in point is the rumour that Morgan was instrumental in demanding the Tottenham women’s team move full time to training at the Hotspur Way facility.
It was not just about importing ready made stars – there was ascension to that level too. The NWSL Challenge Cup was lifted by a Houston Dash team spearheaded by two players who finally fulfilled their obvious potential in Rachel Daly and Kristie Mewis.
Mewis – the older of the two sisters – was rewarded with a first USA call-up in six years. Her goal in a friendly against the Netherlands was one of the most emotional moments in a football match this year.
For both Daly and Mewis, repeating their success in 2020 will be essential to solidify their places at the top table.
All of this has led to a curious phenomenon: a renewed focus on the actual performances on the pitch.
There have been some wonderful ones. Sam ‘Tower of Power’ Mewis has terrified just about every defence in the Women’s Super League whilst Tobin Heath’s goal in the Manchester derby firmly demonstrated why she is so highly rated.
Meanwhile, Vivianne Miedema broke the WSL scoring record before going on to score even more goals.
The domestic cup finals were also intensely competitive affairs.
Chelsea won their first ever Continental Cup in the last game before the season was curtailed thanks to a breathless finish against Arsenal.
Meanwhile, Everton and Manchester City slogged it out for 120 minutes in one of the closest FA Cup finals for a long time.
Both matches pointed to the increased competitiveness of a league which sees a side that is not Manchester City, Arsenal or Chelsea top of it at Christmas.
Despite only being three years old, Manchester United have set down a marker that they will be the team to beat in 2021.
It is too late to see some of the names that have defined this year. Alex Morgan has already returned to the US.
Thankfully, the players in Manchester are due to remain until the end of the season and hopefully, they will have the opportunity to show why they are superstars in front of people.
As fans return though, I hope we retain some of what we enjoyed this year. Whilst it is important to monitor and encourage bums on seats and eyes on TVs, women’s football is at its best when it is just that: football.
Follow Jessy on Twitter at @jessyjph