LONDON -- Katie Zelem had to leave Manchester United to chase her dream, just to get a chance of making a career out of playing the game she loves.
Zelem’s journey — from the return to United to becoming captain and a face of Adidas marketing — captures the rapid advances in women’s football in England.
“Everyone is seeing it,” Zelem told The Associated Press, “and even my own friends are saying, ‘Oh I have seen you on this billboard’ and ‘I have seen you doing this and I've seen you doing that.’
“That's my own friends that maybe previously haven’t seen it.”
With attendances rising since the Women’s World Cup, England is staging a first Women’s Football Weekend while the men’s Premier League is on hiatus for international games. Sitting in fourth place in its maiden Women’s Super League campaign, United plays on Sunday at unbeaten leader Chelsea.
Zelem should be leading out United wearing the captain’s armband. But in 2013, leaving United’s youth setup was the only choice for Zelem as there was no senior team to graduate into.
Liverpool — the longstanding fiercest rival to the United men’s team — gave Zelem a route into the WSL. A season at Italy followed before United finally decided to restart the women’s team that was disbanded 13 years earlier and its locally born former student received a professional contract.
“They really involve us in all aspects of the club and they support us in every way,” Zelem said. “It's really good to see that the club are really invested in the women's side of the game.”
One of the world’s richest soccer clubs not having a women’s team was an unwelcome distinction it shared with Real Madrid until 2018.
Zelem has witnessed the struggle to earn a living as a footballer not just early on at United, but also at Juventus.
There are growing calls to abolish an Italian law that classifies female players as amateurs so restricts them from earning more than 30,000 euros ($33,000) per year.
“If they want to bring better players in and they want to continue to develop the league,” Zelem said, “they’re going to have to look at that.”
The WSL is leading the way as the only European women’s competition that mandates teams to give players full-time jobs.
“Now we are all fully professional,” Zelem said, “we can just continue to strive for more.”
But while her World Cup-winning American counterparts sue for equal pay, Zelem knows players in England are not in a place yet to lobby for parity with men.
“At Old Trafford they've got 75,000 there every week (for the men’s team) and obviously we're not quite at that stage yet,” the 23-year-old midfielder said. “So until you can generate that revenue yourself, it's difficult to support the argument for equal pay.
“But we just continue to strive for more and more and an increase in pay is what we want really and what people are after.”
Zelem played in front of a WSL record crowd of 31,213 in the season opener when Manchester City used its main men’s stadium for the derby.
Chelsea attracted about 25,000 fans to Stamford Bridge for its WSL opener against Tottenham in September, but the visit of United on Sunday will be at the usual women’s team home of Kingsmeadow, the south London stadium with just over 2,000 seats.
United has no plans yet to open the far bigger Old Trafford for women’s football. Casey Stoney’s team uses Leigh Sports Village where attendances have hovered around 2,000-3,000 this season in the WSL.
“We're not bothered what pitch we're playing on and Leigh is our home,” Zelem said. “So, while we're doing well at Leigh, there's no reason to move that.”
Rapid investment into the squad saw United with Zelem gain immediate promotion as Championship winners, and now they are only four points behind Chelsea.
Defending champion Arsenal is a point behind Chelsea in the second of the Women’s Champions League places.
Despite being Europe’s only professional women’s league, England has to settle with two slots in the European competition — just like 11 other nations.
“Probably the top four of England could compete in the Champions League compared to some of the other countries,” Zelem said. “That's how it is and until it gets changed ... that (top two) is what we need to strive towards.”
The team to catch in Europe is Lyon, which has won the last four Champions Leagues. That continental success enticed Alex Greenwood to leave United in the offseason, which led to Zelem being appointed captain.
Having leadership responsibilities sits well with Zelem, particularly in dealing with the manager.
“I'm quite an honest person,” she said, “and if something needs changing then I'm not afraid to say that. I have a really open relationship with Casey and I think that helps.”
Having the respect of the dressing room is advantageous.
“They’re able to come to me first rather than the staff, and that’s often easier and more approachable,” Zelem said. “Not only am I feeding back to (Stoney), she’s feeding back to me. It’s a two-way system and that's really helping us at the minute.”
Zelem gives an insight into a dressing room on matchdays.
“I'm quite opinionated,” she said. “So as soon as we come in (the dressing room), I'm going to give my opinion. And she’s got a system going on. The players come in and say what they think. Casey will come in a few minutes later.”
There is only one other manager Zelem wants to work under: Phil Neville at England.
While Zelem has played for England youth teams, she has yet to be selected for the senior side, which reached its second consecutive World Cup semifinal in July.
Speaking at an Adidas event in London, Zelem takes hold of the ball for the men’s 2020 European Championship but she cannot help thinking what the 2021 women’s tournament version will be like.
It’s a ball she hopes to be kicking on the field when England host the women’s Euros — if she can impress Neville.
“If we can continue to get the wins (at United),” Zelem said, “that really helps me as well.”
But there’s a final bigger message — an appeal for more sponsors to back the women’s game.
“It just takes one person to take the plunge,” she said, “and it's got a knock-on effect everywhere.”