This story first appeared in the April 2016 edition of the Arsenal Magazine.
Arsene Wenger takes a quick glance to his left and smiles. Outside the window sits the Arsenal Ladies Hub, a new purpose-built facility for the women’s team at the Gunners’ London Colney training ground.
Equipped with a changing room, medical department, ice bath and managerial offices for Pedro Martinez Losa and his newly-appointed backroom staff, it is Arsenal Ladies’ first permanent home and, most importantly, another huge step in the right direction for professionalism in women’s football. The game has been on a rapid rise since last summer’s Women’s World Cup in Canada, when England Lionesses captured the country’s imagination by overcoming the odds to finish third in the competition.
Upon their return, Women’s Super League attendances almost doubled, television coverage became much more regular and the increased financial backing saw clubs across the first division become fully professional. Arsenal Ladies were one of the frontrunners in that respect.
In addition to big-name signings such as England’s most-capped player Fara Williams and three-time Champions League winner Josephine Henning, all 21 members of their first-team squad are now training at least four days a week and eating the right meals to aid their recovery at London Colney.
Losa has seen results on the pitch too, with his side picking up an impressive 3-1 win over European giants Bayern Munich during their pre-season tour of Spain in February. By their own incredibly high standards - with 57 titles in the 29 years since they were founded - the Gunners have suffered a minor trophy lull in recent times, but Wenger is confident that the new hub will help Arsenal reclaim their rightful place at the top, leading the charge in women’s football.
“It is very important for them to have a place of their own because you want to take initiatives, to develop and move forward,” says the Frenchman. “You want to have the material aspects of your development and get them right. “That’s the next step forward and now we have an international manager as well. The competition is harder now, and it is for us as well, because other teams have invested heavily. We needed to become more professional and that’s come from what the other clubs have done.
“Do you follow or do you fall out of the top group of teams? That’s a decision that we had to make. That’s why I’m happy we’ve given Pedro and his team the facilities to do that.”
The women’s game has transformed dramatically in the years that Wenger has been involved in football. In fact, when he was growing up playing football on the streets of Alsace, it was frowned upon for girls to join in.
“Unfortunately I can’t remember any girls playing football with us in our village,” admits Wenger. “It was not seen very well and was more considered a negative aspect of a girl’s personality. I’m very happy that we have changed attitudes on that front.
“You have to give credit to the many people who have believed in that and have given women a chance. I would also say that Arsenal is one of the leaders in that. Arsenal were one of the first clubs who dedicated money and I was involved in the board meetings where we voted to give women’s football the necessary funds it needed.
"No other club was doing it at the time so when I look back at it now, I’m very proud of what we did.”
There was a time where these negative perceptions of women’s football were shared in England too, and girls were not offered the same opportunities as boys within the sport. Legendary Arsenal winger Rachel Yankey - who has since gone on to win 129 caps for England and become one of the most recognisable faces in the game – even used to shave her head and called herself ‘Ray’ so that she was able to play for her local boys’ team.
“It must have been difficult for Rachel because she would have wanted to keep her feminine side,” Wenger begins. “But when you have a dream in your life it’s stronger than anything.
"The real strong, passionate people are ready to suffer to achieve their dream. “I can understand what Rachel went through and it must have been very difficult for her. In the end she has made a massive career from it and she has overcome this hurdle. What’s even better now is that young girls who have the same dream don’t have the same problem any more.
“On that front, for women it’s like for men because, to achieve your dreams and fulfil your talent, you have to be able to go through periods of suffering in your life to get to the top. Maybe the reason for her being so great and achieving so much is because she had to go through all this suffering.”
Yankey is, without a doubt, one of the greats. Since joining the club as a 16-year-old in 1996 - the same year as Wenger - the forward has helped Arsenal Ladies lift 26 major trophies, including their historic quadruple in 2007 when the Gunners became the first English side to taste European success.
Still a key player in north London, Yankey’s role off the pitch has changed somewhat in the last few seasons and now, in the new hub, she has a more important role than ever to play behind the scenes. The idea behind the women’s new dressing room is that the players’ changing bays are sequential in terms of the length of time they have been at the club.
This means that goalkeeper Emma Byrne, Yankey and England’s record goalscorer Kelly Smith sit at the head of the room, acting as inspiration for the less experienced players seated at the other end of the scale. Such is the major turnaround that has happened in the last few seasons that Losa’s signings almost make up three walls of the room.
There is also a more cosmopolitan feel in the dressing room now, with the Spanish manager followed across the English Channel by three Spain internationals, three Dutch players and a Germany defender, something which Wenger believes will only improve the standard of the women’s domestic league.
“Every aspect of their game has improved since I’ve been involved in football,” explains the manager. “Now you have professional players so their preparation is much better.
"It always starts with the same thing, though, and that’s the education. “That’s improving too because they have academies now. We have one here and that improves physical and technical preparation. It improves the detailed preparation as well. You see that the power aspect is less strong than for men, but aesthetically I love to watch it when two teams play against each other who are intelligent and prepare well because it makes it very interesting to watch.
"That was not the case 15 years ago. I am much more optimistic today than I was then because it looks like it’s become a worldwide phenomenon. Women’s football has taken off. It has developed into a good technical level, the popularity is increasing and there are big countries like America, China and Japan playing women’s football now.
“Politically women are not allowed to play in some countries, but it’s good that we can put pressure on these countries to let women play football. It gives them a freedom and political purpose that is very positive.
“For me, every human being has the same right in the world whether it’s a man or a woman. One of the rights is to achieve in life what you would love to achieve and that society offers you the potential to achieve your dream.
“Whether you’re a man or a woman, for me it’s exactly the same. I personally think there’s still a lot of work to do for women because there’s still a long way for women to go to have the same privileges as men, but sport can help to achieve that.”
That is certainly the case in England, where young girls are benefitting from new initiatives following the Lionesses’ success at last summer’s World Cup. More than 20,000 girls took up the sport in 2015 alone and that figure is set to increase once the Women’s Super League gets back underway between March and October.
“After every World Cup, the number of fans watching the sport will increase, the popularity of playing the sport will increase and next time it will be even bigger,” Wenger says. “It gives credit to the competition and also to the sport. There are more vocations, more dreams and that is a positive aspect of it which will make it even more popular in the future.
“It creates stars, heroes, in a good way. Once the popularity and urgency is there, that means it will spread through the population and will create even more vocations. What it is about is getting people to fulfil their dream. If they dream of being a footballer and they’re a girl, 20 or 30 years ago it was impossible but today you can fulfil your dream.
"That stimulates the dream for other people who are very young to imitate and become stars themselves.”
After all, one of the main appeals of women’s football is that supporters are given the opportunity to meet their idols on a weekly basis. Once the final whistle blows at WSL games up and down the country, fans can talk to players, take pictures with their heroes and add new signatures to their autograph books.
“Honestly, I envy that aspect,” Wenger smiles. “I think that’s the nicest part.I hope that it lasts for a long time. On our side, we live much more in a bubble, much more protected.
"It was great to see Vic start up the ladies team and have a managerial job of his own. He had all the worries of a manager and he did a great job by always assembling squads of great players to make good teams over the years"
“Don’t worry, we will slowly get stars like in the men’s game and unfortunately there will be a time when the separation with people will come, but let’s focus on how nice it is at the moment. It’s a beautiful thing women’s football can offer, where you’re not completely separated from where your dream comes from, and I enjoy that very much.”
So what’s next for the women’s game? Arsenal Ladies are the reigning Continental Cup champions after they beat Notts County 3-0 in last season’s final and before the 2016 campaign started there was a sense that it could be the most successful year in women’s football not only since the WSL was founded in 2010, but in the 24-year competitive history of the sport in this country.
“The next step will be economical for them,” he says. “We depend on the economics that comes from television, and that becomes much more positive. The Women’s World Cup has become a very big competition, the Champions League will become a very interesting competition, and that’s why I believe that every player becoming professional is the next step. We are not far away from that.
“People will always compare the women’s game to the men’s but it is so important that we don’t. There are some aspects that will certainly be better to watch in women’s football and some will be better to watch in men’s, such as the pace and the power.
“It is a bit comparable to tennis. You enjoy watching men’s and women’s tennis. Of course the power in men’s tennis is completely different but there are other aspects in the women’s game which are valued, such as the intelligence and technique. In order for women’s football to continue to develop, we must remember to be respectful by not comparing it directly to men’s.”
Arsenal Ladies’ main objectives this season will be to reclaim the WSL title, which they last won in 2012, and reclaim their place in the Champions League, having missed out on European football in the last couple of campaigns.
It’s going to be a tough test for the Gunners’ new-look squad against the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea, who have also heavily invested in women’s football, but one which Losa’s team will be relishing and you can be sure that Wenger will follow it all the way.
After all, it was one of the Frenchman’s oldest friends who worked so hard to instil the same values, traditions and history in the women’s team that are so often associated with the men’s. Now working as the first team’s kit manager, Vic Akers helped found Arsenal Ladies in 1987 and guided them to 32 major titles in 22 years, an unrivalled trophy haul which included four domestic trebles and that incredible quadruple-winning season in 2007.
“It was great to see Vic start up the ladies team and have a managerial job of his own,” Wenger smiles. “He had all the worries of a manager and he did a great job by always assembling squads of great players to make good teams over the years.
“That is not very easy because he managed to get the best out of the girls as well. He managed to create a real Arsenal spirit and we have to congratulate him for that because he did an exceptional job.”
Wenger pauses for a moment and looks out of the window for a final time. “Vic was one of the modern pioneers in the women’s game,” he begins. “That new facility is a tribute to his hard work and everyone who ever believed in women’s football. They helped to create a legacy and not many people have the honour of saying that.”
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