A few months ago, I took my two boys (three and four) to the park with a ball for a kickabout. A little girl, around three-years-old, ran over to join in. The pure joy on her face as we passed her the ball and she had it at her feet was so beautiful. The kids all grinned as they started their game.
It was short-lived, however, as her mother (who had been unsuccessfully trying to call her away) finally stomped over and grabbed her hand, pulling her from us. “But I want to play football,” the little girl said. To which her mum hissed: “That’s for boys. Boys play football. Girls don’t play football.” I stared after them in disbelief, grateful that my son stepped in when I should have, shouting after them “They do! Girls play football too. Do you want to be part of our football crew?” Unfortunately, this mum’s mind was made up. She pretended not to hear him and dragged her girl away. The girl looked back at the ball longingly before being yanked out of the park altogether. I’m deeply ashamed that I didn’t call this out at the time.
Fast-forward to August and England has played host to the highest attended Women’s EURO competition on record, culminating in the Lionesses’ nail-biting victory over Germany in the final, played in front of record-breaking crowds at the stadium and at viewing parties up and down the country. One such party was down at Devonshire Green in Sheffield city centre, where many of my football group gathered to watch the game. I’m a member of Football for Foodbanks’ Women and Gender Minorities Division, a group founded in Sheffield which has expanded nationally and enables people of all abilities to play informal and inclusive football in exchange for a donation to the local foodbank. After Sunday’s final, on our WhatAapp group, a few people remembered my incident in the park and said they hoped this would change that mother’s mind. I sincerely hope so, because in spite of the encouraging interest this year’s competition has stoked, there are still many minds to change.
Just 40 per cent of England’s schools provide equal access to football for both girls and boys. This actually represents a huge improvement since the time I was at school, when girls did netball and hockey, boys did rugby and football. That was simply the way things were, in the same way that girls wore skirts and boys wore shorts for PE. I remember feeling very radical when we were finally allowed to wear tracksuit bottoms after lobbying the school. We managed to change what we wore, but attempts to change what we played were straight-batted. Things have come a long way since then, but if you saw the misogyny in comments on social media throughout this glorious tournament, you’ll know how much further there is to go.
I live a ten-minute walk from Bramall Lane stadium, where many of the competition’s games have been played – including England’s emphatic victory over Sweden in the semi-final. I was lucky enough to be there on the night, utterly star-struck and overwhelmed in the presence of greatness. I was at the final, too, sweating pints in a sweltering Wembley stadium, completely consumed by nerves until the final whistle ended extra time and we could all finally breathe. And cry. Lots of crying. My WhatsApp group blew up with notifications from others overwhelmed by emotion, too.
In the 24 hours that followed, the discourse on this group has been both joyful and heartbreaking. We were all on a high, full of pride and joy and hope for the future. And yet, this was tempered by feelings of regret, mourning and loss. Of bitterness, even, over the time both us and generations before us have lost. A range of experiences were represented, from people like me who came to football later in life, through to those who fought through their childhood, teenage years and now as adults for parity of treatment. When the Lionesses lifted that trophy, tears of joy were also tears of pride at such a hard-won victory for the wider landscape of women in football. Among the elation at the achievement and the excitement for the future, so many also described it as a “f-you” to the relentless prejudice they’ve endured over the years. Late-adopters like me felt sad about time wasted, while others felt anger over how hard they had to fight to access and maintain participation in the sport they loved.
We need this to be a watershed moment. We all hope that future generations will be able to celebrate women’s footballing victories without thinking it’s anything out of the ordinary. Football is a feminist issue. Karina Lax, a fellow member of FFF, describes her participation in football as “a feminist act of positive presence”, and FFF founder Alice Rhind-Tutt, says she came to football as a feminist first and a footballer second. FFF member Jo Almond has been fighting her whole life for equal access, from railing against PE teachers right through to facing down prejudice engrained in business. Sheffield’s FFF has members from all over the world, from countries where women playing football is the norm to those where it’s practically discouraged. We’ve all found a home in FFF, a place where you are encouraged and supported regardless of your ability or experience. I’ve seen similar groups springing up in Sheffield and across the North in the last few years and it’s a joy to behold.
My motivation for taking up football resulted from the 2019 World Cup coverage. For the first time in my life, I was watching women play football. I’d always thought I wasn’t a football fan, but that competition made me realise I just wasn’t a fan of the football I’d been exposed to up until that point. I had just had my second child, another boy, and I decided I wanted them to grow up knowing that gender should never be a barrier. I’ve taken up ballet, too, and I want to give them the opportunity to do the same. They might not want to pursue football or dance in the long run, but I feel it’s important for them to know that, regardless of how you identify, if you want to take part, you can – and you will be respected in doing so.
Funding is crucial. Although it’s a stretch, we are privileged to be able to afford to let our kids try different things and commit to one or two of them if they want to. My mum couldn’t afford ballet lessons for me as a kid, and if I’d had the chance to play football I doubt she could have paid for that either. This is why serious money needs to be invested in sport in school, because school is a place where everyone should be equal. Parents with means can pay for swimming lessons, dance classes, football boots, transport to training – but so many can’t. There is so much work to do in terms of diversity, too, with the vast majority of players across the women’s European teams being white. In excluding children from sport, whether it’s down to gender, race, or income, we are scoring a massive own goal. Look at how the nation’s heart has been captured by England’s performance in the Euros this year. Unprecedented attendance, coverage and sponsorship shows us the momentum is there – it’s all about keeping it up, now.
I live in hope that I’ll see that little girl at my kids’ football one day, her mum cheering from the sidelines as she runs rings around the boys. Watching our England team lift the EURO trophy, we genuinely felt as though it could be possible for that girl, and that’s the legacy of the 2022 Lionesses.
Photos by Karina Lax
If you want to get involved, follow this link: https://footballforfoodbanks.com/find-a-match/