Curse of the Lionesses: what’s causing spate of England women’s football injuries?

Several key players are out of the World Cup, raising concerns about hectic schedules, sub-par pitches and sexism

fran kirby injury football
Chelsea midfielder Fran Kirby is the latest Lioness to be missing the World Cup
(Image credit: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

The England women’s football team has suffered a spate of serious injuries, ruling several key players out of the World Cup and raising further health concerns amid hectic schedules and male-focused medical research.

Chelsea announced this week that their key midfielder Fran Kirby will miss the tournament and undergo knee surgery. This adds to the “already lengthy list of absentees” in the Lionesses’ squad for this summer’s tournament in Australia and New Zealand, said The Times, many of whom were instrumental in last summer’s Euro 2022 triumph.

“An injury crisis is threatening to derail the Lionesses’ dream of winning the World Cup this summer,” said the Evening Standard, with Leah Williamson, the captain, ruled out and star forward Beth Mead unlikely to recover in time, among other injuries.

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The Lionesses are one of the favourites to win the competition, with odds of around 4/1, and will open their campaign against Haiti in Brisbane on 22 July.

Who has been injured?

Kirby, 29, was injured during a Continental Cup match against West Ham in February and hasn’t played since despite extensive treatment. She missed most of the 2019-20 season with other health issues, including pericarditis (inflammation of the heart lining) and fatigue.

Williamson, the influential England captain and central defender, suffered a serious knee ligament injury in April, “limping out of Arsenal’s Women’s Super League [WSL] clash against Manchester United”, said the Daily Mail, and will also miss the World Cup.

“Arsenal boss Jonas Eidevall pointed the blame at United’s pitch at Leigh Sports Village”, said the i news site. “I think it’s going to continue here with the schedule we have and pitches like that, players are going to get injured,” he said.

The number of matches played at the United women’s team home stadium “has become contentious amid growing fears about the number of serious injuries in the WSL and in the wider women’s game”, said the i news site. The women’s sides are not permitted to play at the men’s stadiums, where pitches generally have better quality surfaces, due to scheduling conflicts and fears of lower attendance.

Why are women suffering so many knee injuries?

Williamson’s Arsenal and England team-mate Beth Mead suffered a similar knee injury in November. Head coach and England manager Sarina Wiegman has said it would take “a miracle” for her to be able to play in the World Cup.

England right-back Lucy Bronze also underwent knee surgery last week after the 31-year-old was injured playing for Barcelona in their 1-0 Champions League win over Chelsea on 22 April, “casting doubt on whether she will be able to play in showpiece later this year”, according to The Telegraph. Millie Bright, centre-back and vice-captain, has also recently undergone knee surgery, but still hopes to play at the World Cup.

“Female players are still suffering knee ligament injuries in worrying numbers,” wrote Suzanne Wrack in The Guardian back in 2020. Women, Wrack said then, appeared to be four to six times more likely to suffer an ACL [anterior cruciate ligament] injury than male footballers, according to research.

“Traditionally, a lot of the research was done on males,” Dr Andrew Greene, a senior lecture in sport at the University of Roehampton, told The Guardian, “and the transferability is hard because the two different populations are quite distinct.”

Most boots are designed for men

“Pitches are only one factor,” said the i news site, “with the majority of sports science and strength and conditioning research having been conducted on male bodies.” Most football boots are designed for men, despite “significant physiological differences in female athletes”.

When she won BBC Sports Personality of the Year, Mead questioned the dearth of research into why female players suffer so many knee injuries. “I think if that happened with a Messi, a Ronaldo, a Griezmann, there’s probably going to be a lot more done,” she said.

There are also concerns over the intensity of the women’s schedules, with only a two-week break after the World Cup before the new WSL campaign starts, and a new Uefa Women’s Nations League also begins next season.

Considering the growing number of serious injuries, it was “alarming” that Fifa, the world governing body, did not consult the leagues or players before adding a new Club World Cup to the schedule too, wrote Sweden and Chelsea defender Magda Eriksson for i news in December. “If you just add more and more games, there’ll come a time when it just becomes too much,” she said.

Few of the women’s clubs have the resources for medical monitoring and physios, Eriksson said. “I wonder whether women players might be less fragile if we’d received better medical attention early in our careers.”

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Harriet Marsden is a writer for The Week, mostly covering UK and global news and politics. Before joining the site, she was a freelance journalist for seven years, specialising in social affairs, gender equality and culture. She worked for The Guardian, The Times and The Independent, and regularly contributed articles to The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The New Statesman, Tortoise Media and Metro, as well as appearing on BBC Radio London, Times Radio and “Woman’s Hour”. She has a master’s in international journalism from City University, London, and was awarded the "journalist-at-large" fellowship by the Local Trust charity in 2021.