As the daughter of a father who wanted boys, I’d often kick about with a football in the garden. I had little idea of what I was doing – he had little idea about how to teach me. I still can’t even kick a ball properly; there was no chance to learn.
I was born in 1973, just two years after the FA’s 50-year ban on women playing football competitively was lifted. But the idea that women couldn’t play football, and shouldn’t because it was unfeminine, persisted.
In my primary school, the playground was dominated by the boys’ football games. I wasn’t allowed to play. As a competitive girl whose father also taught her that she could do anything she set her mind to, the frustration of being told no, purely because of my sex, stung.
At my girls’ secondary school one friend was threatened with suspension if she pursued her plan to form an after-school football team that would play other schools. She was told it wasn’t ‘ladylike’.
It’s often said that football is a stand-in for religion. In one important sense that’s undoubtedly true – as in many faiths, women have always been treated like second-class citizens. Every victory – from girls getting a football team at a school to the first female bishop – is built on the efforts of the women who fought and lost before us.
England’s European Championship victory was about far more than ’30 years of hurt’. It is more than 100 years. Women were banned from competing way back in 1921, when teams of female munitions factory workers were as popular as the men’s teams. The final straw for the FA seems to have been a match between Dick, Herr FC and St Helen’s in 1920 which brought in a then record audience of 55,000 people.
Attitudes towards women in football have always mirrored society at large. Even today, 20% of female football fans have experienced unwanted physical attention while at men’s games. You hear it too in crude jests about players’ wives.
Each of the Lionesses, most of whom were born at least 20 years after me, had to fight just to be able to play football, let alone win our first major tournament since 1966. It’s why Gary Lineker’s stupid joke about winning England goal-scorer Chloe Kelly’s bra felt inappropriate. Women were pushed out of football because of our biological differences – they shouldn’t have to endure puerile jests about their anatomy on their way back in.
Such comments perpetuate the idea that girls will never be as good as boys. While there have been seismic changes over the last two decades, you still see it from the attitude of the footballing authorities to the way the media reports on it. A 2018 report found just 10% of media sports coverage is about women’s sports, even though our teams have also excelled in cricket and rugby.
You’ll see it too in the unequal pay packets – while Lioness Fran Kirby is one of the best paid female footballers in the world. with a salary of £300,000 a year, her Chelsea team mate Romelu Lukaku earns £450,000…a week. The average annual salary in the Premier League is £2.7million per year, one hundred times more than the £27,000 average in the Women’s Super League. Of course this is a reflection of the fact that men’s football remains more popular than women’s – but, especially given the huge crowds for the Euros – is it really 100 times more popular?
The Lionesses prize money for winning the Euros was £1.3million which equates to a bonus of £55,000 for each player. Our men’s team, on the other hand, each took home more than three times that total for finishing runners up in the Euro 2020 final against Italy.
As the England women’s team said yesterday in an important letter to the Tory leadership candidates, their success needs to be the start of a revolution in women’s football – starting with girls at school.
‘We want to create real change in this country and we are asking you, if you were to become Prime Minister on 5 September to help us achieve that change. The reality is we are inspiring young girls to play football only for many to end up going to school and not being able to play.’
That stats here are striking. While 72% of primary schools now offer equal football coaching to boys and girls, the figure plunges by the time they get to secondary school with just 44% giving girls equal access to football in PE lessons.
One friend, the headmaster of a small girls’ private school, introduced football into his PE curriculum eight years ago and brought in a former professional player to teach the girls the skills they needed. After-school football clubs are now by far the most popular of all the extracurricular clubs his school offers – so much so that they run every term, not just during the football season.
As Baroness Sue Campbell, the FA Women’s Football chief, says, girls need specialist teaching to reach their potential. ‘It isn’t just a case of providing what the boys have,’ she says. ‘A little boy will probably have been kicking a ball since goodness knows when. A little girl has probably been throwing it. So much of girls’ participation is also linked to confidence. They will tend to feel far more silly than boys by playing.’
Unlike more traditional girls’ sports – netball and hockey – football is a game which can be picked up almost anywhere and any place. All you need is a ball and that’s why every evening, every weekend, you’ll see football being played in our parks, in our streets and in our gardens.
If the Lionesses’ victory is to really mean something for this country, it must be that football is open to anyone who wants to play.
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