The Rise of Scottish Women’s Football: From Exile to Excellence

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A vibrant stadium display transforms the vertiginous stands of FC Barcelona’s Camp Nou into a cauldron of blue, red, and yellow effervescence.

The rousing club anthem of Cant del Barca – so instantly recognizable to even the most apathetic of football followers – bellows into the evening Catalan sky and is echoed harmoniously by almost 92,000 supporters.

The colours, the sound, the operatic UEFA Champions League theme – a scene so intrinsically affiliated to the rich institution that is FC Barcelona. Except on this Wednesday night, there was an inspirational twist.

Nicknamed the cup with the big ears, the European Cup is the most coveted accolade in football on the continent. Source: CC image courtesy of David Flores on forum Flickr

The occasion? FC Barcelona Women v Real Madrid Women in the Quarter Final of elite European football.

A world-record-breaking attendance for a women’s football match took in the home side’s 5-2 Quarter-Final victory over their fierce rivals on an evening that illustrated, on an explosive global scale, just how far women’s football has come.

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet”><p lang=”es” dir=”ltr”>La piel de gallina <a href=”;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#MoreThanEmpowerment</a> <a href=””></a></p>&mdash; FCBSeny (@FCBseny) <a href=””>March 30, 2022</a></blockquote> <script async src=”” charset=”utf-8″></script>

Albeit on a somewhat more modest scale, the women’s game in Scotland has embarked on an impressive and admirable evolution of its own over the last decade or so.

The record attendance for a women’s game in this country was smashed in May 2019 when approximately 18,000 fans took in a World Cup warm-up match between Scotland and Jamaica at Hampden.

And all indicators point to this particular contest ultimately becoming a catalyst in the upward trajectory of women’s football in the country.

Since then, commercial deals between governing authority SWF and BBC ALBA, BBC Scotland, and GO Radio have seen media coverage more than double, whilst social media means the potential reach is endless.

Full-time and part-time professional contracts are becoming more and more common and the number of young girls and women getting involved in the beautiful game is astronomically higher than ever before.

Hibernian Women Captain Joelle Murray compared access to the game now compared to when she first started playing:

“When I first started out at the Borders, I was sort of seen as a novelty because I was the only girl playing football.

“There were no girls-only sessions, the difference is massive.

“Compare that to today and there is an abundance. On a daily basis, I get a lot of emails from parents looking to get their kids of all ages into football, which is great.”

Former Glasgow City Youth Coach and current Glasgow Women Manager Craig Joyce – who has 12 years of experience in the women’s game – explained:

“It’s huge. Everything is on social media now.”

“Games are on TV which is great and more recently Hibs, Hearts & Celtic have all played in front of crowds at their respective home grounds.”

“Something the girls also have alongside the visibility is the role models on show.”

Some of Scotland’s biggest stadiums – such as Celtic Park, Ibrox, Easter Road, Tynecastle and Pittodrie – have hosted women’s games this season, providing a heightened platform for the players to experience. Source: CC image courtesy of Zhi Yong Lee on forum Flickr

And so it is for good reason that, when pondering what level the women’s game in this country can truly achieve, many will start to “look sideways at Barcelona the other night to find inspiration.”

Such optimism is further vindicated when on closer inspection, you consider the ostensibly insurmountable challenges which have obstructed the development of the game for such long spells of its history.

In 1921, most notably, the English FA and Scottish FA issued a ban on all women’s games being played in stadiums claiming that football’s physicality was “most unsuitable for a women’s frame” and “quite inappropriate for most women”.

Resultingly, the female game was forced underground until as recently as 1971.

Despite these attempts to curb the expansion of women’s football, incredible pioneers still emerged throughout this period.

Rose Riley, Jane Legget, Elsie Cook, and the Rutherglen Ladies Football Team have all gained recognition in modern Scottish football folklore; they’re defiance against the male-dominated orthodoxy of the sport each well-worthy of standalone features in their own right.

A mural is proudly displayed in Rutherglen by the train station entrance to celebrate trailblazers Rutherglen Women. Source: Sam Ronald

Upon intervention from UEFA in 1971, a vote was called amongst member nations as the need for official, regulated governance of the women’s game became too clear to ignore.

At long last, a 31-1 resolution lifting the prohibition was passed.

Can you guess the single nation who opposed the motion? Embarrassingly, yes, it was Scotland.

But despite the ruling, members of the SFA were in no rush to enact any sort of formal governance and so, in a dismissive act of trailblazing self-establishment, six clubs took matters into their own hands by forming the Scottish Women’s Football Association in 1972.

Thanos’ ‘Fine, I’ll do it myself’ meme comes to mind in this respect.

Eventually, in 1974, the SFA relented, and Scottish women’s football was finally recognized in an official standing.

The SFA were active opponents of women’s football throughout the 20th Century. Pic credit – Sam Ronald

The format and structure of the women’s football pyramid have since been adapted a number of times before the SWFA was eventually reconstituted to the incumbent SWF who now operates as the primary governing body of elite women’s football.

Thus, having only been officially recognized as a sport less than half a century ago, the progress made in this time is worthy of profound respect.

Joyce was quick to testify to this:

“The growth of the game while at City was there for everyone to see.

“It’s slightly easier when your first team is successful and is visible.”

“The club was promoted, and I saw it as my job to develop the young girls there as people and footballers.”

Record numbers of young girls are playing and training in Scotland. Pic credit – planet_fox

“From then the evolution is evident, teams are now full time, some part-time, and others aspiring to be both.”

“This doesn’t happen overnight, there is a lot of time put in behind the scenes to make this happen and make it sustainable.”

“Not everyone has the resources that teams affiliated to a men’s side have but we do our best with what we have.”

However, it remains to be mentioned that the unpleasant reality is sexism and antiquated, discriminative attitudes toward women’s football still very much exist. Whilst not in the flagrant regulatory sense of the 20th century, the commercialization, increased coverage, and social media presence of the women’s game has given rise to misogynistic prejudice of an entirely different new kind.

This was particularly clear at the start of the year when Stenhousemuir was required to publicly defend their captain after she was subject to online abuse following a game against Ranger’s Ladies.


Instances such as this are far too common in the women’s game, and a simple visit to the comments section of women’s highlights videos on social media is more than likely to back this up.

Joelle Murray says she is aware of the abuse that can be aimed at women’s football online:

Moving forwards, Joyce said:

“We need to shout more about our game. Embrace it, develop it and be positive about it. Cut out any negativity or bullshit that comes with social media and people thinking they have an opinion.”

“I can’t stand negativity towards the game and bullies. Unfortunately, we have faceless ones who hide online or in crowds, there’s no time for that moving forward.

“Cut it out and enjoy what we have.”

“Watch it, help it, and enjoy its growth.”


So what next for women’s football in Scotland?

It has now been announced that the latest revamp of the sport’s governing structures will come into play from next season.

In a historic development for the women’s game, the operational remit will be turned over to the responsibility of the SPFL.

Upon release of the announcement, Chief Executive Neil Doncaster said:

SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster said: “Everyone at the SPFL is hugely excited by the prospect of working closely with the SWPL clubs to help increase the competitiveness, profile and income of elite women’s football in Scotland.

“I have been struck by the ambition of all clubs involved to drive up standards, take the game to the next level and increase participation across the sport.

“It is clear to see the many benefits that increased professionalism has brought to women’s football across the world. We believe we are well-placed to add significant value to the game in Scotland in both a sporting and commercial sense.”

The organisation hopes that the development will better position the sport to fulfil the SFA’s women’s strategy Accelerate Our Game 2021-2025, and help to support UEFA’s worldwide initiative to double the women’s participation in the beautiful game.

Joelle Murray feels this is the best time for the move and is the natural step in the progression:

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