Pushing women’s football forward, from the inside

Arsenal player Kelly Smith, who will speak at the Host Cities event, discusses how the game of women’s football should be improved, and why a Chinese audience proved so surprising

Kelly Smith is a forward with Arsenal Ladies who has played with the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) franchise in the US, as well as Women's Professional Soccer (WPS). She has accumulated over 100 caps for the England women's national football team since making her debut in 1995, is England's record goalscorer with 46 goals, and played for Great Britain at the 2012 London Olympics.

Vision: How do you think women’s football has changed since you’ve been in the game?

Kelly Smith: I started playing when I was six years old, and from then until now, the game has evolved so much. Back then, I never thought I would get paid to do what I do. But, I left England to go to school in America and pursue my dream, as the sport was developing quicker and faster over there.

It’s more equal for females in general to play sport in America, I feel. They have something called Title IX (a comprehensive federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity), and that means there is equal funding for men and women’s sport in college. And when the US Women’s football team won the ‘99 World Cup, the sport really took off over there. They formed their own professional league, WUSA, which I was lucky enough to play in.

Now, the leagues across the board – Holland, Germany, UK, USA, are strong. In England, Arsenal players are pretty much full time athletes – they can train every day and have access to the top training facilities. The sport is in a far stronger position now, especially as England gained a bronze medal in the World Cup (a score that meant the country did better than any national side – of either gender –at a World Cup since 1966).

Now BT cover the games, the BBC screens the England game, and it’s more accessible to the fans.

V: How can the game be further improved?

KS: We need other clubs to support the women’s game. Arsenal has been the traditional team that has been successful because the men’s club has supported them for 20 years. Manchester United and Chelsea in the UK are doing the same, but the lower teams are struggling because there aren’t enough finances to go around.

V: How have you found the move from player to coach?

KS: I’ve been a coach for the last three years, and playing at the same time. That was a bit tricky in and of itself, because some of the players I was coaching were my age, and I wasn’t used to not training every day. I’ve really tried to give younger players coming through in the professional clubs with tips and experiences that I’ve had in my career. It’s been really rewarding.

I try and make the sessions fun when I take them. Obviously I have a strategy of what to focus on, but at the end of the day they’re professionals and they want to work hard, but have fun while they’re doing it.

V: What are your feelings on football being hosted in places that you wouldn’t normally be associated with the sport?

KS: I think it’s a great idea. Some players are not happy playing in different temperatures than they’re used to, for example, but I think you have to make football a global brand. It’s a people sport, and as much as you can get people engaged with it ­ whether it’s watching it or playing ­ – it’s a great sport to be involved in. Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed my playing career as I got to travel to countries I never normally would have done.

When we went to China to play in the World Cup, for example, we had attendances that shocked me. In 2007, women’s football was just taking off internationally for England, but we were playing in packed out stadiums of 30-40,000 people. That was a surprise as I had normally associated China with basketball, but the fact that we had tens of thousands of people watching – from schoolkids to the general public – there’s no better feeling.

Kelly Smith will be speaking at the Host Cities event in Dubai from 18-19 November