Football as a child is probably one of the simplest times to enjoy the beautiful game. Wearing the team’s colours and either being heartbroken or over the moon about how they did at the weekend becomes the only thing worth worrying about, whilst time spent after school kicking a ball will eventually become a memory savoured during the years ahead.
But what happens when all that changes? You grow up, wiser and with a voice, and society grabs you with its dirty hands and tells you that football is for boys. When you watch football, the adverts around the stadium are male focused, something you never realised as a young girl. Social media is in uproar when women’s teams are added to a FIFA game. Sexism is rife when women have a part in the men’s game, either on the pitch or as a pundit, with 66.4% of women in the industry saying they have been a victim to it.
We can’t talk about football or play football because we’re women.
“I used to go to the park with my dad when I was around nine to play football,” recalls Sarah, 24, a student from London. “But now I find myself avoiding areas where groups of lads will be so they can’t see me kicking a ball. I feel like they always have a comment to say about females playing football.
“Most of the time it’s okay, but some find it sexy – which irritates me – or they can’t quite believe that a girl can actually play.”
With 34% of the UK’s population interested in women’s football according to Barclays, it shows that not even half of the country sees it on par with the men’s game. Whereas it is growing in popularity thanks to media coverage, the less it is taken seriously has a knock-on effect when it comes to younger generations.
“I can’t relate to male footballers. As a kid I was inspired by those footballers, but growing up and joining a local team, I realised that I wasn’t represented. It felt almost like I wasn’t allowed to be a professional footballer because of who I am.”
And it isn’t just the young girls that didn’t have female athletes to aspire to, the problem also effects boys, hard wiring them with the notion that football is a man’s game.
Even though most of us will be of a certain age reading this magazine, and that probably means that when you grew up, professional women’s football wasn’t a thing, but at least to some degree, that is changing. Having been to two Women’s FA Cup Finals, and many women’s games, there is a good mix of families and children – both boys and girls – enjoying the atmosphere. “It certainly feels a lot safer at a women’s game compared to the men’s,” says Ellen, 26, Manchester. “There is less testosterone and angst. I think you can go as a lone woman and actually feel safe supporting your team.”
Feeling safer during women’s football is becoming more common, but not necessarily just during professional games. “I play football every week in a 7-a-side women’s league and I also banter with the girls about football. It’s great because I don’t feel judged because of my gender, and I feel free to express my opinions without them being ignored.
“Even though it’s 2020, I still can’t believe some men have a problem with women playing and talking about football. It’s almost like we’re ‘ruining’ their masculinity.”
Traditionally, working-class men and boys have been at the forefront of football. In the 1900s, ‘boys’ papers’ focused on football, which, if you think about it, societally engrained the theory that football was for males only. Women did not get a look in, though by the First World War they took over the football, only for it to be banned by the FA in 1921. Let’s not forget that this was only lifted in the 1970s.
“I think that football has been so long associated with men that ‘re-inventing’ it to be anything otherwise is such a hard task. Really, it is only a minority. I have many male friends who do not care that I’m a woman and that I like football. Even so, finding a community of other women football supporters has been something of a revelation to me.”
The queer community has especially, un-purposely, brought women together over their love of football. There has been a lot of debate and academic journals written about women who like football and their sexuality, but generally it could be a coincidence – not that it matters. Even so, it has been a useful way for women to feel safe enough to play and chat about football, “It’s just sad that some women have to be a part of these communities to feel safe. Isn’t that strange? It’s football we’re talking about.”
Sarah adds: “Social media has become a place I have found a community. I can talk to like-minded women who want to talk football. I feel like I can speak openly about a match without my gender being an issue.
“But I can also follow pages that relate to women supporters and the female footballers themselves. It gives me that drive in my day-to-day which tells me that gender shouldn’t control what I like or what I do.”
The queer community has especially, un-purposely, brought women together over their love of football
Not all men, as previously stated, have an issue with women liking football. The majority won’t even bat an eyelid, but it does rare its ugly head, especially when football traditions are changed. “Football is a funny thing,” says Matt, 28, London. “In a good way, I really do not care if it is a man or woman who banters about football to me. It’s football chat, and it’s the same. But what does make me laugh is when something, like having a female pundit on Sky for example happens, the keyboard warriors are in full force with their sexism. It is stupid and damn-right hateful.”
As we look to the future, it can be difficult to envisage women on an equal footing to men when it comes to football. The big question is, will it ever happen? Women’s football has grown in huge amounts over the past couple of years, that today you can find matches on the BBC and ex-footballers are pundits on what once were male dominated shows. Money has been injected into the WSL, and the FA recognises women’s football as a serious sport.
The next step is for the younger generations to have been normalised to the fact that both men and women play and talk about football. Separating people because of their sex – colours, sport, and supposed gender characteristics such as liking make-up – is all created from society when we are children. Rome wasn’t built in a day, of course, so let’s see where we are in another couple of years.
Image by Leeza Thomas