Women’s football has made enormous strides in recent years, with the global appeal and popularity of the game never bigger than it is today.
Much of that growth can be attributed to a number of outstanding women, who have worked tirelessly to raise the profile of the game at grass roots, collegiate and professional level, as well as in the world of broadcasting.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of women who deserve to be recognised for all they have done, but there are some pioneering figures who have stood out above all others. Here, 90min spins you through some of women’s football’s ultimate trailblazers; ones who have helped shape a bright future for generations to come…
A star of the famous Dick, Kerr Ladies side of the early 20th century, Parr helped draw a crowd of 53,000 spectators to a Boxing Day match in 1920.
She played against both male and female players and was one of the original trailblazers of women’s football, earning herself a spot in the English Football Hall of Fame.
The first woman, and first non-white person, to manage England at any level, Powell made a huge impact on football for a number of reasons.
She went on to become the first woman to hold a UEFA Pro License, the highest qualification available to any manager.
On the pitch, Rapinoe is a star of the dominant United States national team. She helped draw countless eyes over to the women’s game and put on a number of dazzling displays to keep fans entertained.
Away from football, her campaigns for equality for all genders, races and sexualities has been emphatic, using her platform to speak out on problems faced by many around the globe.
On top of a record-breaking career which saw her become the first woman inducted into the World Football Hall of Fame, Hamm’s biggest impact came away from the pitch.
By starring in a Gatorade advert alongside NBA superstar Michael Jordan, headlining the Mia Hamm Soccer 64 video game and getting her name dropped in an episode of Friends, she helped bring women’s football into the limelight which had previously been taken up by male athletes.
Following in Hamm’s footsteps, Morgan broke through the cultural barrier by appearing in her own TV segments and interviews in the early 2010s, but things soon stepped up to a whole new level.
Morgan featured in shows like American Idol and The Simpsons and was also included in Maroon 5 and Cardi B’s music video for Girls Like You. She was also one of the first women to feature on the cover of EA Sports’ FIFA video game franchise in 2015.
She became the first female pundit to be taken to a World Cup tournament by the BBC in 2018 and has since enjoyed prominent roles with both BBC and Sky Sports.
A leading candidate in the conversation for the best female footballer on the planet between 2016 and 2019, Hegerberg made history when she became the first recipient of the Ballon d’Or Feminin in 2018.
Winning the vote ahead of Pernille Harder and Dzsenifer Marozsan, Hegerberg was flying the flag for women as they were finally recognised with the same award as men.
Many will tell you that Marta is the single greatest footballer in the history of the women’s game.
The recipient of five consecutive World Player of the Year awards between 2006 and 2010, Marta holds the record for most goals in the history of the Women’s World Cup and was the first footballer of either gender to net at five consecutive World Cup tournaments.
A close business associate of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, Granovskaia was added to the boardroom at Stamford Bridge in 2013, having played a minor role in contract dealings with the club over the previous ten years.
She is now the brains behind everything that goes on at one of the world’s biggest football clubs and has been dubbed ‘the most powerful woman in football’ because of her position.
Whelan became Leicester City‘s chief executive in 2011 – despite not knowing much about football at the time – but worked tirelessly to develop an understanding of the game which is deeper than most.
She helped build Leicester’s profile and dragged them up the Football League, giving them the tools they needed to win the Premier League and establish themselves as genuine threats to the so-called big six.
One of only two women included on Pele’s famous 125-long list of the best players of all time, Akers scored the first goal of the USWNT programme and led the scoring charts at the first-ever Women’s World Cup.
The vast success of the USWNT can largely be brought back to Akers, who stood up to be counted at a time at which women’s football was barely an afterthought to most fans.
Solo injected a real dose of quality into women’s goalkeeping during her incredibly successful career between 2000 and 2016.
She reinvented the position and helped prove to a new generation that women’s football wasn’t always about scoring goals. A new wave of female goalkeeping talent was not far behind.
The youngest player to ever appear in a World Cup final, Prinz was a prolific striker across Germany and the USA, and she was so good that she was offered a contract with men’s Serie A side Perugia in 2003.
The German icon rejected the offer, fearing that she would simply be used as a publicity stunt. She demanded more for women in football, and her cries were eventually answered.
Massey-Ellis was just two games into her career as a Premier League assistant referee when she became the victim in a sexism scandal, but while she had good reason to run away and hide, she chose to use the incident to grow.
She remains one of the most respected assistant referees in the English game and is a regular feature at the highest level of international competition in the women’s game – something her male counterparts don’t often get the chance to say.
Steinhaus was widely accepted to be among the finest referees of any gender in world football, earning herself a role as an official in the Bundesliga in 2017.
She ended her career by officiating the German Super Cup clash between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, bringing an enthralling end to one of the most influential non-playing careers we have ever seen.
Few people have had the kind of impact on Asian women football as Ji, who helped raise the continent’s sporting profile when she sealed a high-profile move to Chelsea in 2014.
Not only has Ji inspired a new generation of Asian footballers, but thanks to her outstanding success in London, she helped prove to the world that Asian women could compete with the best.
If you have ever seen English coverage of football, you will have seen and heard Oatley, who has played a prominent role in presenting games of both genders over the past decade.
She was a pioneer for women taking a role in discussing the men’s game, encouraging more to challenge stereotypes and take risks in such a male-dominated world.
By taking charge of the 2019 Super Cup final between Liverpool and Chelsea, Frappart became the first women to officiate a major men’s game.
Her profile has grown ever since and she became the first women to referee in the Champions League in December 2020, taking control as Juventus played out a 3-0 win over Dynamo Kyiv.
Given control of the USWNT in 2015, Ellis helped grow the success of the women’s game and became the first manager to win back-to-back World Cups.
Her importance to the game transcended management, and when she stepped down from her role in 2019, she became an ambassador for the game with a specific focus on increasing the number of women in coaching across the world.
Hayes’ unprecedented success as Chelsea manager saw her linked with a move to male League One side Wimbledon in early 2021 – rumours she felt were an insult to women’s football.
Hayes questioned why leaving a team who had won three Super League titles to move to a League One side was seen as a step forward, proving that women’s football is not automatically below men’s.
One woman who did take her talents to the male game was Diacre, who made history by becoming the first woman to manage in the top two tiers of a men’s European League.
Diacre spent three years in charge of Clermont Foot before leaving to become France manager in 2017. She was the first women to lead Les Bleus in ten years.
Like Diacre, Chan also made a significant impact in male coaching, becoming the first woman to lead a team in a top-flight league when she was appointed manager of Hong Kong-based Eastern.
With Eastern, Chan also sat in the dugout for a match in the AFC Champions League against powerhouses Guangzhou Evergrande in 2017 – the first women to ever manage in a top-flight continental competition.
Nobody in the world, male or female, has ever represented their country at the highest level more than Lilly, who picked up a mammoth 354 caps for the USWNT between 1987 and 2010.
One of the major players in the early years of women’s football in the US, Lilly helped put the game on the map and refused to hang up her boots until she had personally enjoyed the reward.
Entering the world of professional male football in 1993 when she was just 23 years old, Brady impressed enough as managing director of Birmingham City to earn a role as vice-chairman of West Ham United in 2010.
To this day, Brady continues to work behind the scenes at the London Stadium, working tirelessly to help the Hammers grow their profile and make an impact among Europe’s elite.
Kick-starting her playing career in 1993, Brazilian legend Formiga is the only player in the history of football to compete at seven consecutive World Cup tournaments.
No other player, male or female, has managed more than five, while she’s defied all logic and expectation to continue competing at the highest level of club and international competition well into her 40s.