In the movie, Bend it Like Beckham, there is a moment where the two main characters, Jules and Jess, watch a professional women’s game on their television. During the match, the commentator shouts, “…And Smith beats the keeper! Goal for Kelly Smith, the England international!”.
Many consider Kelly Smith to be England’s first female football superstar. She is highly regarded as one of the greatest to play the game, with her unforgettable celebration of kissing her left boot after scoring her first goal against Japan in the 2007 Women’s World Cup.
At the age of 7, Kelly Smith was the highest goalscorer for Garston Boys Club in Watford. She sent a bloodied classmate home after he got in the way of her left-footed strike. Smith cut her hair short and continued to play for the boys’ team until the parents of rival sides realized she wasn’t a boy and ordered her to be removed from the league. Even from friends, she would hear snide remarks commenting on girls playing soccer. “[She] was absolutely devastated when [her] dad told [her] that [she] was being kicked off the boys’ team”, and it was her first taste of the sexual politics that challenged so many of the sport’s earliest players (Leighton). Smith’s father responded by forming his own team, the Pinner Girls, for his daughter to play on.
Even as a child, her unmistakable talent had caught the attention of others. She was only 13 when she received an offer for a university scholarship in America after impressing US scouts during a friendly against a touring US team.
Kelly made her senior debut in 1994 for the Wembley Ladies. At such a young age, she was still able to impress. Smith was described as an “outstanding prospect in the women’s game” and as “lethally quick, bountifully gifted”, and as one of “several impressive young players [the Wembley Ladies have] brought on” in the past year (Davies).
Smith eventually accepted her scholarship at Seton Hall University in 1997. She had already been playing for the Arsenal ladies from 1996-1997 and had made her first appearance for England in 1995 just three days after turning 17. In that debut game against Italy, Kelly won player of the match (Davies). She turned down the chance to play for the England team in its first appearance at the 1995 World Cup tournament because she was studying for her General Certificate of Secondary Education (GSCE) exams. (Leighton).
While at Seton Hall, Kelly quickly became regarded as one of the country’s finest athletes. She was the first athlete in any sport at the time to be the Big East Conference’s (Offensive) Player of the Year and Newcomer of the Year in the same season. After scoring a total of 76 goals and recording 22 assists in just 51 matches, the school retired her no. 6 jersey and was the first athlete to have their number retired in a sport outside of basketball (Shupirates). England did not qualify for the 1999 World Cup hosted by the United States, so Smith had to sit and watch from the stands. Promptly following the United States’ victory after extra time and penalty kicks, Smith told a reporter that she doesn’t “want to come home because women’s football in England is a joke”. “[She] wanted to play professional football, and [she] knew that wasn’t going to happen in England” (Kessel). At the time, even the Arsenal players would only train on Tuesday and Thursday nights.
After finishing her studies at Seton Hall, Smith stayed in the United States and began her career for the New Jersey Lady Stallions of the W-League. Following the formation of the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) in 2001, women’s football in America turned professional (Kessel). She was drafted second overall for the Philadelphia Charge with an annual salary of $30,000. Unfortunately for Kelly, she was plagued with injuries throughout her career. Her first season for Philadelphia in 2001 was her only full season with WUSA. In 2002, she tore her ACL, and the following two years struggled with recurring knee problems.
Miles from home and living on her own after graduation, Kelly Smith struggled to cope with the burden of her injuries and with being away from the game for so long. She described herself as a “quite a shy and reserved person and didn’t really hang out with team-mates too much”, so she was on her own to deal with the injuries. Unable to play, Kelly began to spiral into a depression. Reflecting back on this time of her life, she says, “I get my happiness from playing, but I couldn’t play. I didn’t talk to anybody about it. Perhaps that’s where the problems stemmed from. I wasn’t in contact with my family and it got very lonely. I always gave a smile, everybody thought I was OK, but deep down I was really hurting” (Kessel).
“When you’re older you have more in your locker to cope with the emotions. But, when I was younger, when I couldn’t play through a broken leg, through knee surgery, I’d be drinking, I’d be depressed, I’d be having negative thoughts all the time like, ‘I might not ever play again’. So my psyche was wrong, all messed up” (Gray).
After three seasons, the WUSA collapsed in 2004. The league budgeted $40m for the first five years, but a majority of it was spent in just one season. Even high attendances at matches and strong TV viewing revenue could not cover the deficit. Kelly decided to stay in America as a semi-pro for the New Jersey Wildcats only to break her leg in 2004. Smith was devastated. She was in such a bad state that her dad flew out to America to bring her home and check her into rehab at the Tony Adams’ Sporting Chance Clinic.
Still battling with depression, Kelly returned to play for the Arsenal Ladies in 2004. However, a stress fracture in her foot prevented her from playing much of the 04/05 season. Though it was tough being on the sidelines, she received a lot of support from the England head coach Hope Powell, who served as manager from 1998 to 2013. Powell had high praise for Kelly, saying that she “is one of those players who come along only once or twice in a lifetime. In the men’s game, you’d think of Diego Maradona or Messi, players with a unique talent, and that’s what Kelly has” (Leighton). Her first game back, Smith scored a goal from 30 meters out against Charlton Athletic L.F.C. to secure the Premier League title for Arsenal.
Free from injury and personal conflict, Kelly Smith’s professional career began to flourish. During her Arsenal career after rejoining in 2005, she appeared in 112 matches and notched 100 goals. With Kelly’s help, the 06/07 Arsenal Ladies squad won an incredible six titles, including the Women’s Premier League, UEFA Women’s Cup, FA Cup, Premier League League Cup, Community Shield, and London FA Women’s Cup. However, Kelly had to miss the UEFA Women’s Cup finals after being sent off for giving the middle finger to the opposing fans after hearing their jeers (Kessel).
With the help of Kelly Smith, the England international team slowly climbed up the rankings to 12th ahead of the 2007 World Cup, the highest they had ever been ranked at the time. When healthy, Kelly Smith was highly regarded as one of the best players in the world. After
scoring a hat-trick against the Netherlands in a 2007 Women’s World Cup qualifier, Vera Pauw, the Dutch coach, referred to Kelly as the “best player in the World” (Kessel). In 2008, Kelly Smith was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). The former United States head coach from 2000 to 2005, April Heinrichs, stated that she would have been an automatic choice for her squad. The legendary American striker Mia Hamm, who won the World Cup twice for the United States, remembered seeing Kelly play for the first time. “Her touch is different class – everything’s clean, everything’s with a purpose. The pace of her passes is always perfect and she can score at will too”. (Leighton). Carli Lloyd, two-time US Olympic gold medallist and two-time FIFA women’s player of the year, was asked who was ‘the best player she played with?’ and replied, “Kelly Smith from England” (Moore). Smith scored a total of 46 goals for the Three Lionesses in 117 international matches before announcing her retirement from the international game in 2014 and as a player in January 2017 (Calwell).
Finishing her career as a player, she has become involved with soccer in the media. She joined Fox Sports’ as a studio analyst for the network’s coverage fo the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia™, providing her insight and analysis of the matches. Overcoming injury and depression, Kelly Smith will forever be regarded as one of the finest players England has ever produced. Kelly revolutionized women’s football and will continue to shape the game moving forward in the years to come.
- Leighton, Tony. “Kicking against prejudice.” The Guardian, 21 May 2009, www.theguardian.com/football/2009/may/22/seven-deadly-sins-football-women-s-football-kelly-smith. Accessed 29 Apr. 2019.
- Davies, Pete. “Life’s a Pitch for Women Footie Players.” The Independent, 30 Aug. 1995, www.independent.co.uk/life-style/lifes-a-pitch-for-women-footie-players-1598597.html.
- Davies, Pete. “It’s a Whole Different Ball Game.” The Independent, 12 Nov. 1995, www.independent.co.uk/life-style/its-a-whole-different-ball-game-1581522.html. Accessed 29 Apr. 2019.
- Leighton, Tony. “Stage set for female Messi.” Express, 4 July 2011, www.express.co.uk/sport/football/256684/Stage-set-for-female-Messi.
- “Kelly Smith Earns All-America Honors.” Shupirates, shupirates.com/news/1999/12/11/Kelly_Smith_Earns_All_America_Honors.aspx.
- Kessel, Anna. “Kelly Smith, England’s hot shot.” The Guardian, 2 Sept. 2007, www.theguardian.com/ sport/2007/sep/02/football.newsstory1. Accessed 29 Apr. 2019.
- Gray, Ashley. “Kelly Smith: How I beat the drink and turned into England’s best player.” Daily Mail, 11 Dec. 2009, www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-1234891/Kelly-Smith-How-I-beat-drink-turned-Englands-best-player.html.
- Moore, Glen. “How Kelly Smith, England’s greatest female player, overcame injuries and a drinking problem to inspire a generation.” Independent, 11 Wednesday 2017, www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/news-and-comment/kelly-smith-retires-englands-greatest-female-player-inspired-generation-womens-football-a7521766.html. Accessed 29 Apr. 2019.
- Caldwell, Dave. “How England’s Kelly Smith became one of the faces of the World Cup in the US.” The Guardian, 12 July 2018, www.theguardian.com/football/2018/jul/12/kelly-smith-fox-sports-analyst-world-cup.