Arsenal Ladies Do the Double

It might be another trophyless season for Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, but Arsenal Ladies collected their second of the season earlier today in the Women’s F.A. Cup Final in front of 24,582 fans.

Women’s Cup Final

Amazingly, as the Guardian reports, doing the double is almost a disappointment for the Gunners; last year, Arsenal won the quadruple, the heart of their run of 51 straight wins that was finally ended with a draw earlier this season.

Let that sink in for a second: 51 straight wins. In a game where one bad bounce can cost you, that is undoubtedly a phenomenal achievement. It’s also not necessarily good for women’s football in England. Too many games are over before they begin, and nobody wants to know who the champion will be before the season even starts.

The structural problems in the English game are pretty clear. Despite impressive numbers for participation at the grassroots — over a million women and girls played the game last year — too many teams have for too long been at the mercy of their parent clubs. Arsenal’s dominance comes from the strong support they’ve received from the club, but that’s all too rare.

Leeds United L.F.C., Arsenal’s opponents today, have survived against the odds after being abandoned when Leeds United chairman Ken Bates cut their funding and use of training facilities. Leeds managed to buck the trend of this leading to disaster by acquiring sponsorship from Empire Direct and later Leeds Metropolitan University. For many women’s teams tied to men’s teams, though, relegation for the latter often means extinction for the former. This happened to Charlton Athletic’s women’s team just last year: success on the field for the females was not enough when the club decided to cut costs when the men were relegated.

The final thus contrasted two models: Arsenal Ladies success shows how much value can be gained from close cooperation with the men’s team. Yet league-wide, the trend should surely be towards Leeds’ now-independent model, so that women’s teams can develop on their own feet and not be dependent on the results of the men’s club for survival.

Women’s Professional Soccer
The launch of the new Women’s Professional Soccer league in the United States in 2009 might deal a further blow, at least in the short term, to women’s football in England. It is not hard to imagine that some of the best and most ambitious female players and coaches might jump ship to a fully professional team across the Atlantic.

Unlike the previous professional league, the WUSA, WPS looks to have a sensible modest business model that should mean it can survive without attracting huge crowds. I’ve been following closely the early stages of the formation of the Chicago WPS club (and so can you, if you read the blog by its president, Peter Wilt), and it looks like it will be a very impressive set-up (and Peter: please sign Kelly Smith!).

Like most other American professional sports leagues, WPS will surely encourage parity that would make 51 consecutive wins unlikely; WPS should be able to attract fans who want to see competitive soccer week in, week out. Teams will be independent entities, but some will also partner with MLS clubs to share facilities and resources (Chicago’s WPS team will play at the Fire’s Toyota Park, for example).

As well as competition, then, perhaps WPS in America can also set something of an example for how a women’s league could flourish. For as much as Arsenal set an inspiring example with their set-up and performance, no league can thrive when one team is indomitable and women’s teams are tied to the fluctuating fortunes of men’s teams.

The Guardian article also reports the FA are currently reviewing the future of the women’s game. Given the historical debt the F.A. owes the women’s game, let’s hope it really comes up with a solid plan and funding to develop a more competitive league.

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