Women who matter | West Midlands photographer offers clearer picture of grassroots game

The Birmingham City side, as written in Dhaliwal’s own history for BBC Birmingham, grew from supporters of the men’s team who wanted to play themselves. The first players gathered in 1968, a year before creation of a Women’s Football Association and lifting of the de facto ban in place since the FA had declared the game “unsuitable” for women. The team, as pundits say, had moved from “strength to strength” until reaching a point in 2003 when the side contained nine England internationals; a quarter of the host England team at Euro 2005 came from the Birmingham ranks.

The same year, the Birmingham City board had offered to assume financial responsibility for the team, independent throughout its history, but then withdrew a £75,000 sponsorship offer at the last hour. Perhaps they knew that relegation was on the horizon for the men’s side in 2006. Writing in the Guardian, Georgina Turner points out that Birmingham City chief executive Karren Brady, one of the few women in football’s top ranks, had offloaded a six-figure sum for sock ties for players and the team shop (“That’s No Way to Treat the Ladies,” 4 Aug 05). What are sock ties? The board, for its part, questioned whether the women’s game offered a “viable business opportunity.” Scathingly, in her own assessment, Dhaliwal wrote that viability was not the real issue, given the club’s fruitless £6.25 million gamble on Emile Heskey.

Remarkably, Birmingham City Ladies have survived in the top flight but are typically outclassed by teams with solid financial backing, such as Arsenal and Charlton. “Lack of viability” remains a damning phrase, with Fulham—which, in 2000, became Europe’s first professional women’s team—having barely survived last year after announcing that the team would be discontinued. Manchester United has shut down its women’s team; Sunderland and Cardiff City have just managed to hang on. A House of Commons report last summer recommended creation of a summer women’s league and a home nations championship so that women’s football might carve its own niche.

In their own way, Dhaliwal’s luminous portraits could be marshaled to back the cause.

Dhaliwal’s photographs will be on view at Focus on Imaging 2007, a trade show open to the public, at the NEC exhibition center in Birmingham, Feb 25–28.

Zohreh Soleimani captured this image of women supporters in Tehran following Iran’s qualification for the 1998 World Cup finals. (Copyright © Zohreh Soleimani)

OTHER SOURCES

An interview with Dhaliwal appears in the online edition of Asian Today, part of a series of three articles on Asians in women’s football in Britain (“British Asian Women in Football,” Mar 8). Dhaliwal maintains an archive of Birmingham City Ladies photographs—she is the team photographer—at Flickr. Mark Hodsman forwarded us a link to his in-process chronicle of Scunthorpe United Ladies of the Northern Women’s Combination League.

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